Terroirs and grape varieties

 

Climate and topography:

a privileged situation

Topography

Bordering the Atlantic Ocean and exactly situated on the 45th north parallel — halfway between the North pole and the equator —, the vineyard of Bordeaux is entirely contained within the administrative subdivision (department) of the Gironde, enjoying an extremely pleasant situation and climate.

The topography of the Gironde includes three distinct regions:

• To the West, on the left bank of the Garonne, from the Graves to the Médoc, a plateau that gently slopes towards the coastline.

• To the East, on the right bank of the Dordogne, a rolling plateau (100 to 130 meters high), mostly hilly with relatively deep valleys, but no steep slopes or sharp relief. From coast to coast, it stretches between Castillon-la-Bataille and Blaye.

• Between these two regions, delimited by two rivers, the Entre-Deux-Mers is a hilly region where the highest points of the department are located. The local hydrography, evidently based on the Garonne and the Dordogne, also rests on an abundant network of small streams that naturally meets, every year, in normal conditions, the water needs of the Bordeaux vineyard.

Climate

The climate of the Bordeaux region is of a mild oceanic type. It benefits, on the one hand, from the influence of the Gulf Stream — a warm water stream from the Caribbean region that runs along the coast of Aquitaine, warming and regulating the local temperatures —, and on the other hand from the influence of the Landes forest, a wide stretch of pine trees acting as an effective protective screen against the Atlantic winds and tempering the classic oceanic climate. The combination of all these factors results in a largely pleasant climate that greatly favors the optimal ripening of grapes, with sunny Summers, mild Falls, very little frost in Winter and relatively damp Springs. The only climatic incidents feared by winemakers are:

• Spring frosts while the vine is flowering and cold rains during the pollination, for these may induce coulure or shatter, which happens when pollens, dragged to the ground by rain and wind, fail to come in contact with the flowers and fertilize them. Some grape varieties are more prone to coulure than others.

• Hail, which may cause severe damage to the vine plant at any point until harvest time, affecting flowers, fruits, shoots or leaves.

 

Terroirs

For the planting of an excellent vineyard, the quality of soil is a crucial element. Anchored to a limestone subsoil covered with siliceous and gravelly-sandy deposits, the Bordeaux vineyard has a geologic diversity that particularly favors wine-growing and the production of extremely diversified wines.

Left bank

On the left bank of the Garonne and of the Gironde estuary (Médoc, Graves, Sauternes), the soils are mostly gravelly, of variable thicknesses, a result of the erosion of the Pyrenées by the Garonne and at some places, in the Médoc, of the Massif Central by the Dordogne river, during thousands of years. These soils are composed of pebbles, gravels and sands carried throughout the interglacial periods. They have great filtering abilities and are also very good for absorbing and accumulating heat, which helps with the grapes’ ripening. Indeed the hard stone pebbles that constitute most of the graves (gravelly) soils absorb the heat during the day and radiate it back to the plants during the night.

Right bank

On the right bank of the Dordogne (the Libourne region, Saint-Émilion, Pomerol, Fronsac, Blayais, Côtes de Bordeaux…), a whole palette of soils of varying compositions can be found. They directly come from the erosion of several types of source rocks, which include clays, limestone, sands, and some gravel.

With their relatively fi ne texture, these soils have the ability to absorb and retain rain water, which helps to cool the vines.

Nevertheless, since they are generally situated on top of hills and endowed with good drainage capacity, they let excess water seep down to the deeper layers of soil, where it is not likely to smother the vine’s roots.

Between Garonne and Dordogne 

Between Garonne and Dordogne (Entre-Deux-Mers, Loupiac, Cadillac, Sainte-Croix-du-Mont…), the soils are essentially clay-limestone, which means that they are cool and humid, like some of the right bank of the Dordogne. It should also be noted that the nature of soil is directly connected to the mineral components drawn in by the vine’s roots and transferred, ultimately, into the composition of the grape juice.

Thus, in Bordeaux, it is possible to find, on radically different soils, vineyards producing equally successful wines with extremely varied organoleptic qualities — that is the magic of these great soils.

 

Grape varieties

On the many painstakingly studied and cultivated terroirs of the Bordeaux vineyard, grape varieties are planted. Their adaptation to their environment is also the result of an age-old traditional knowledge.

Red grape varieties

• The most common red grape variety is merlot, which covers a little more than 69,400 hectares. A precocious, vigorous type of vine, it can express its potential qualities in most Bordelais soils, but it prefers the cool and humid nature of clay-textured soils.

It ripens easily and is generally the first to do so, while being vulnerable to grey rot and coulure (shatter), especially in silty soils. Merlot brings to wines color, alcoholic content, suppleness and roundness in the tannic structure, and plenty of aromatic elegance. Not predominant on the left bank of the Garonne, it predominates in right bank plantings, particularly in Pomerol. It brings aromatic notes of fleshy red fruits, plum, fig and, after a few years of bottle aging, some toasted notes.

• Cabernet sauvignon, the most traditional grape in the Bordeaux vineyard (covering about 26,000 hectares), is a late-ripening, small-berried and thick-skinned variety that is particularly well adapted to the gravelly, warm and dry soils of the left bank of the Garonne. It is resistent to grey rot and produces a regular, moderate yield of fruit. As a young wine, it is very aromatic, providing a tannic richness and power suitable for long aging, at the end of which the patient amateur is rewarded by distinctive wines with a rich, complex and harmonious flavor, reminiscent of black fruit (blackcurrant, blackberry) and licorice, developing undergrowth notes after some years. It is predominant on the left bank and more infrequent on the right bank.

• Cabernet franc (about 12,000 hectares) is mostly grown in the Libournais. It ripens slightly earlier than cabernet sauvignon. The wines that are extracted from its small berries are rich in polyphenols, and much appreciated for their aromatic fi nesse and aging qualities. With a very expressive nose and a strong tannic structure, cabernet franc gives notes of raspberry and violet. Generally not dominant in Bordeaux blends, it can be the main variety in some Saint-Émilion wines.

• Three other varieties, known as “auxiliary” grapes, are far less common: malbec (also known as côt, pressac, or auxerrois), petit verdot and carmenère. They are generally present in blending in small proportions.

White grape varieties

• Sémillon (about 7,300 hectares) is a much appreciated variety that is well rooted in the Gironde, particularly in zones where sweet white wines are produced — there, sémillon wines are golden-colored, delicate, rich and extremely smooth. To dry white wines, it brings aromatic elegance and smoothness, with notes of apricot, acacia blossoms and almond. When it is enhanced by noble rot (Botrytis cinerea, see “Sweet Bordeaux” on page 67), it develops very special fragrances (candied fruits, dried fruits). It is the major variety in liquoreux and moelleux wines, and dominates in Sauternes plantings. It is used as a minor component of dry whites.

• Sauvignon blanc (about 5,500 hectares) is the major reference for the production of dry white wines. Giving an excellent expression of terroir, it brings plenty of liveliness, minerality, good acidity and aromatic potential. It produces pale yellow-colored dry white wines with a powerful, fruity bouquet, with notes of citrus, box tree, fig leaf, and sometimes a slight smoky note. More or less a minority variety in moelleux and liquoreux wines, it is dominant in dry whites.

• Muscadelle (about 870 hectares) has a predilection for clay soils where it is less vulnerable to rot than in shallow, well drained soils. Wines made from it are very aromatic, round and slightly musky, with low acidity and powerful, floral notes. It is frequently used in small proportion in moelleux and liquoreux Bordeaux blends.

• Like the reds, white wines also have their auxiliary varieties colombard, merlot blanc, sauvignon gris and ugni blanc.