BORDEAUX SOIL AND GRAPE VARIETIES
Bordeaux’s varied terroir offers a variety of soils and climatic conditions, providing more or less favorable conditions for different grape varieties.
Wine production in France is strictly regulated, and in Bordeaux only certain grape grape varieties are permitted. There are three main grape varieties for red wines, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc, plus ‘auxiliaries’, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carmenère. The auxiliary, or complementary, grape varieties are sometimes used in smaller quantities to add certain characteristics or flavors, to provide balance in the ‘assemblage’ process, i.e. when the wine is being blended. For white wines, the main grape varieties are Sémillion, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle, with auxiliaries Colombard, Merlot Blanc, Sauvignon Gris, and Ugni Blanc.
Cabernet Sauvignon – is the dominant varietal on the gravel-rich Left Bank. Its main flavors are blackcurrant buds, raspberry and cedar. Cabernet Sauvignon wines tend to have full body, medium acidity and strong tannins.
Merlot – is better suited to the clay and limestone terroir of the Right Bank, and tends to ripen earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot-based wines dominate in appellations such as Saint-Emilion and Pomerol, including the prestigious Pétrus and Chateau Le Pin. Merlot wines have fruity flavors of strawberry and raspberry with chocolate notes, they tend to be very dry, full-bodied, with medium acidity and medium velvety tannins, and relatively higher alcohol content.
Cabernet Franc – is the other varietal dominating Right Bank wines, with its raspberry and blackcurrant flavors and hints of strawberry. The medium-bodied wines have high levels of acidity and medium tannin levels, for a smoother wine.
Petit Verdot – is used to make a full-bodied wine with very pronounced, high tannin levels, and is best suited to being grown in gravel and clay soils. Its flavors include blueberry, raspberry and chocolate, perhaps licorice.
Malbec – when grown in France, Malbec is fresh in the mouth and fruity – you’ll be able to smell plum and blackcurrant and also spicy notes. It makes for very full-bodied wines with relatively high alcohol levels.
Carmenère – is noted for its fruity flavors of strawberry, plum and raspberry, with notes of spice. It prefers a warm and sunny late season. Widely grown before the phylloxera crisis of the late 18th century, it’s now rarely grown.
Sémillion – is susceptible to Botrytis cinerea (noble rot), which shrivels grapes and concentrates their sugars. Affected grapes are highly prized for making sweet dessert wines. Typically blended with Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon adds body, flavor and texture. Flavors include honey, white flowers, especially acacia, also hazelnut.
Sauvignon Blanc – grows well in a variety of conditions, blends well with Sémillon. This provides grapefruit and passionfruit flavors, green woody elements. Warmer climates bring out peach flavors. Lacks tannins but has high levels of acidity.
Muscadelle – loves clay soils, where it’s grown for dry and sweet white wines. Weak acidity, but provides body, and white flower, grapefruit and pineapple flavors.
Colombard – suits clay and limestone soils, has high acidity levels and flavors of lime and peach/nectarine, sometimes grapefruit.
Merlot Blanc – Bordeaux origins, rarely grown now, mainly in Graves, low alcohol.
Sauvignon Gris – favors ripening by an oceanic climate, with strong acidity and flavors of grapefruit and boxwood, also hints of passionfruit and sometimes lychee.
Ugni Blanc – likes limestone, high acidity, flavors of lemon, grapefruit and quince.
In 2021 six more grape varieties were approved by INAO (Institut National des Appellations d’Origine) for vineyard trials, to provide more options for winemakers as they adapt to climate change. The six grape varieties are Marselan, Touriga Nacional, Castets, Arinarnoa, Albarino (also known as Alvarinho), and Liliorila.
Wouldn’t you like to visit some Bordeaux wineries, to see and hear for yourself how and why they choose to grow certain varietals in their vineyards? Bordeaux’s chateaux and vineyards are a must-see for wine lovers, whether you’re a connoisseur or just beginning your wine appreciation journey. Bordeaux With Elodie organizes unique, customizable, private wine tours and wine-tastings – there are plenty to choose from here!