Bordeaux the World Over

The impact that this iconic French wine region has had on grape growing and blending has touched practically every corner of the winemaking planet. 

At a recent Master Class featuring the wines of “The Spire Collection” that I hosted at a swanky resort called, Windsor Florida, near Vero Beach, I found myself frequently going off-road on my carefully curated notes as curious guests asked ever more complex questions about the topic at hand: Bordeaux. While this legendary French wine producing region is a familiar name to even the most casual wine drinker, it turns out that defining it takes a lot of explaining. 

As a region, Bordeaux is divided by a large river estuary called the Gironde. This is where we get the terms “Left Bank” and “Right Bank,” which refer to winemaker’s use of different grapes in red Bordeaux wines. Though both Left and Right are basically the same region, the topographical differences between the two draw clear distinctions, and tend to showcase two different sets of grapes. The “Left Bank,” whose soils are more difficult for grape growing, favor Cabernet Sauvignon fleshed out with Merlot. The “Right Bank,” whose soils are less difficult, are perfect for Merlot blended with a smaller proportion of Cabernet. Theoretically-and broadly-Cabernet-centric “Left Bank” wines tend to be higher in tannin and more powerful, while Merlot-centric Right Bank wines are typically smoother and softer in power. 

“…growers and winemakers outside of the strict confines of Bordeaux can blend anything they want with these grapes; they just can’t call it Bordeaux.”

On wine bottle labels, however, you won’t see the words “Left Bank” or “Right Bank;” rather the appellations that define the area. On the “Left Bank,” the major regions are St-Estèphe, Pauillac, St-Julien, Médoc (and Haut-Médoc), Margaux, Sauternes and Southern Médoc. From the “Right Bank,” Pomerol, Margaux and Saint Emilion.

Finally, there is also a third type of Bordeaux, rarely mentioned, made of white grapes: Bordeaux Blanc, a delicious blend of, typically, Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc, with a splash of Muscadelle and/or Sauvignon Gris. While Bordeaux blanc wines make up less than 10% of all Bordeaux wines, but they are quite famous, especially for the luscious, sweet dessert white wine called Sauternes.  

Thanks to Bordeaux’s long tradition of exporting wines (especially to England in the 19th Century), demand for the wines spread seemingly across the planet. The style is emulated anywhere grape growers can grow the grapes that comprise the “Bordeaux Blend,” which, in addition to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, also includes Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petite Verdot. Of course, growers and winemakers outside of the strict confines of Bordeaux can blend anything they want with these grapes; they just can’t call it Bordeaux. 

Here are the wines I presented, which are pretty widely available nationally:

Hickinbotham 2014 “Trueman” Cabernet Sauvignon, McLaren Vale, Australia $75

Hickinbotham Clarendon Vineyard was established by Alan Hickinbotham in 1971 in the McLaren Vale, a subregion of South Australia. He planted dry-farmed Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz in contoured rows on the sloping site. The 200-acre vineyard has since become part of Australia’s winemaking heritage, supplying fruit to produce many of the country’s greatest wines, including Penfolds Grange and Hardys Eileen Hardy. This is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon aged for 18 months in fine-grain French oak.  

Arcanum 2010 “Valadorna” Tuscany $75 

Arcanum is located in the commune of Castelnuovo Berardenga in the southeast corner of Chianti Classico, where it produces three Bordeaux-style blends, featuring Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The wines are crafted by Pierre Seillan, an international winemaker recognized for his work in Bordeaux, California and Italy. The winery produces three wines per vintage, each expressing a different aspect of the estate’s personality: Arcanum, primarily Cabernet Franc; Il Fauno di Arcanum, a Bordeaux-style blend; and this Merlot-based, Valadorna.  

Château Lassègue 2010 “Lassègue,” Saint-Émilion, Bordeaux $75

The only Bordeaux in the tasting, Château Lassègue is located just outside the town of Saint-Émilion, representing the Right Bank. The historic château was purchased in 2003 by Jess Jackson and Barbara Banke, who along with vigneron Pierre Seillan and his wife, Monique, set out to make it one of the premier producers in Saint-Émilion. The vineyards are planted to Merlot (60%), Cabernet Franc (35%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (5%). All three are in this wine, with Merlot, of course, playing the lead. Also check out the more affordable “Les Cadrans de Lassègue,” the estate’s second label.  

Vérité 2014 “La Muse,” Sonoma County $400

Vigneron Pierre Seillan identified more than 40 micro-crus along the western slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains in Sonoma County to craft this wine from small vineyards within vineyards, a palette of soil types. In each vintage, the winery releases three Bordeaux-inspired blends: La Muse, Merlot-based; La Joie, Cabernet Sauvignon-based; Le Désir, Cabernet Franc-based. 

La Jota 2013 W.S. Keyes Merlot, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley $150

La Jota Vineyard Co. has deep roots in Napa Valley’s winemaking history, back to W. S. Keyes, who planted the first vines on Howell Mountain, back in 1888. Ten years later, Howell Mountain pioneer, Frederick Hess, established the La Jota Vineyard. Both men won medals for their wines at the Paris Exposition of 1900, which brought instant recognition to Howell Mountain as a world-class wine-growing region. This is a blend lead by Merlot, with Cabernet Sauvignon.

Cardinale 2014 Cab Sauvignon, Napa Valley $275

Cardinale crafts a single wine from each vintage. The wine is a limited-production Cabernet Sauvignon blend from Napa Valley’s most celebrated mountain appellations, including Diamond Mountain, Howell Mountain, Mount Veeder, and Spring Mountain. Winemaker Christopher Carpenter layers the intricate notes of mountain vineyards into one resounding wine, comprised of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.