Delve into the wines of Bordeaux with our comprehensive guide and free downloadable map outlining all crucial aspects of the WSET Level 2 in Wines exam. This guide provides all of the essential knowledge for your exam, delving into Bordeaux’s significant Appellations d’Origine Contrôlées (AOCs) and their quality levels. We’ll unravel the complexities of the diverse growing options, and understand the profound impact of climate on the style of the wine, all important topics examined in the WSET Level 2 exam.
For those of you not taking exams, stick around!
This post shares important labelling terms that allow you to identify and describe what’s in a bottle of Bordeaux wine without you even having to open it! So, prepare to unravel the mysteries of Bordeaux and gain the expertise needed to navigate the intricate world of wines successfully.
[And if you are a WSET Student, perhaps you’d also like to check out this post on tips to remember the grapes and regions of Italy you need to know for your WSET Level 2 exam with another free downlaodable map!]
Table of Contents
Understanding WSET's Languagae
When preparing for WSET exams, it’s important to relate it to WSET’s language. To this point, here’s a quick breakdown of the important WSET topics so we can master Bordeaux for the Level 2 in Wines exam.
- Environmental Influences – In Bordeaux’s case, the climate is moderate with high levels of rainfall. Yet, we should further ask ‘how does the climate affect the choice of grapes planted or winemaking options used?’
- Next, we should consider if there are there any special features or Location Factors, that aid the vines. For example, the Left Bank of Bordeaux has gravel soils. As a result, the rocks absorb the heat from the sun during the day and reflect it back to the vines at night. Thereby helping Cabernet Sauvignon grapes to ripen.
- Grape Growing Options – Do the grapes have any characteristics that contribute to the style and quality of the finished wine? They sure do! We’ll delve into this in great detail in the following paragraphs.
- Winemaking options – The Bordelais have mastered the art of blending grapes for ultimate effect in wine quality from year to year. But did you know that all top quality wines will use small new oak barrels? As a consequence, the style of wine inside the bottle gains yummy flavours of vanilla, smoke, and clove.
- Conversely, the style of the wine may impact a producers choice of blending partners. For example, if a ready-to-drink wine upon release is the goal, they’ll add more Merlot. As Merlot is the softer, plusher grape, it softens the highly structured and tannic Cabernet Sauvignon.
Now, let’s get into some some juicy details!
A Note on AOC's and Bordeaux Wine Law
In regards to Bordeaux wine, we are specifically focusing on the pinnacle of quality: the AOC or Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. Accordingly, this represents the highest tier in the EU wine quality scale under the PDO or Protected Denomination of Origin wine law scheme.
Notably, Bordeaux does not produce wines labeled as PGI (Protected Geographical Indication).
Yet, generally speaking in France, if an appellation (such as Bordeaux AOC) covers a vast area, the resultant wines are of a basic, generic quality and cannot command much in terms of price.
However, hidden within these expansive regions are exceptional sites. These smaller areas are distinguished by unique features (or WSET’s ‘location factors’) like gravel-rich soil for optimal Cabernet Sauvignon ripening or limestone escarpments in St. Émilion, ideal for cultivating top-notch Merlot grapes. These exceptional sites are represented by smaller, village-named appellations such as Margaux AOC, Graves AOC, and Pessac-Léognan AOC. Due to their superior locations, wines from these areas boast concentrated fruit flavors, excellent aging potential, and limited availability, hence commanding higher prices.
Alright, take a deep, slow breath as we will now tackle everything you need to know about Bordeaux for your WSET Level 2 in Wines exam!
What You Need to Know about Bordeaux Wine for Your
WSET Level 2 in Wines Exam
Red Wines of Bordeaux
Location Factors: Regional Appellations of Bordeaux
In Bordeaux, the Dordogne River and the Garonne River join and make the much larger Gironde Estuary that empties into the Atlantic Ocean.
Now, picture these basic, regional appellations which cover all sides of the rivers. Then, make sure to check it out in our wine map of Bordeaux below!
Bordeaux AOC (for both dry red and dry white wines)
- this appellation covers the entire region of Bordeaux (both left and right bank) and offers basic wines at inexpensive prices. Moreover, these wines are generally unoaked and are ready to drink upon release.
- If it is red wine, it is made from a blend of mostly Merlot grapes with some Cabernet Sauvignon. (That’s why this appellation is only mentioned in Chapter 14 on Merlot). These wines are light – medium bodied with red-fruit flavours of strawberries and red plums and often have herbaceous notes (green bell pepper, capsicum). They offer great value for money!
- If it is a white wine, Bodeaux AOC is made with mostly or entirely Sauvignon Blanc and with possibly some Sémillon grapes blended in. As a result of the blend, these wines show fresh aromas of grass and green apple notes.
Bordeaux Supérieur AOC (for both dry red and dry white wines too)
- This appellation covers the exact same area as Bordeaux AOC, but the Bodeaux Supérieur AOC are for wines that are slightly better.
- But, why are they better? Suitably, the appellation has slightly lower yields and stricter minimum alcohol levels and ageing before release – the term ‘Supérieur’ denotes this
- Correspondingly, the wines have slightly more concentration than just the basic Bordeaux AOC. As a result, these wines can be priced slightly higher while still offering great value. See above for tasting note.
- Bordeaux Supérieur is only mentioned in your chapter on Merlot, but it applies to all of the blended, dry wines (red and white) of the region.
Grape Growing Options:
Because the wines above (Bordeaux AOC, Bordeaux Supérieur AOC) are meant for early drinking, the red wines are mostly dominated by plush Merlot grapes with some Cabernet Sauvignon to provide a little structure.
Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur are large regional appellations that cover both the left AND right bank.
These areas have very little gravel or none at all in the soil. Ergo, more Merlot is planted as it ripens reliably – since Cabernet Sauvignon needs the extra reflective heat provided by gravel to reach its potential.
It means that those areas which have higher concentrations of gravel in the soil will therefore be planted with the king of grapes, Cabernet.
In fact, Merlot is the most widely planted grape variety in Bordeaux! (Often seen exam question!)
Merlot is the most widely planted grape variety in Bordeaux!
Did you know?
The distinction between the Left Bank and Right Bank in Bordeaux is fundamental to understanding the region’s wines. These terms refer to the two sides of the Gironde River, which divides Bordeaux into distinct viticultural areas.
The wines of the Left Bank are made primarily with Cabernet Sauvignon. Whereas, the wines of the Right Bank are made mostly of Merlot.
Location Factors: Left-Bank Appellations of Bordeaux
The wines of Left Bank are west and south of the Gironde Estuary (river) and Garonne River.
As mentioned already, Bordeaux has trouble ripening Cabernet Sauvignon except in certain esteemed Left Bank appellations due to their gravel soils.
Truly, you cannot even call this ‘soil’!
The top vineyards are 100% rocks!! Gravel soils provide excellent drainage, so vine roots are not cold + damp. Also, the gravel absorbs heat during the day and reflects it back – aiding the ripening process. Gravel soils are therefore, considered a ‘location factor’ for WSET.
The following Left Bank appellations are mostly for dry red wines. But there are some exceptions.
The Left-Bank appellations you need to know for your exam are...
- These wines are made mostly of Merlot grapes and mostly meant for early consumption.
- However, Médoc is within the larger Bordeaux appellation. So, in general, a wine that is labelled Médoc is better than a wine labelled Bordeaux.
- But Médoc is still pretty large, and the wines of Médoc are less concentrated than wines from…
- This is a smaller area than Médoc which makes slightly more concentrated wines. Some of these wines have limited ageing potential (which for the Left-Bank) means these soils have a higher % of gravel in them).
- Can be Merlot-dominant or Cabernet-dominant blends depending on the site (which for left bank Bordeaux means how much gravel is in the soil) or the style of wine the producer wants to make. Still, most of these are Merlot-dominant blends.
As we journey further south along the Gironde, we get to what is referred to as the Commune or Village appellations on the Left-Bank. Now, you ONLY need to know the names of the village appellations listed below and be able to describe the style of wine inside the bottle. But, I’ve given you a touch more detail here than you need.
The following villages are where the most esteemed Cabernet-dominant wines come from. Subsequently, the vineyards within these villages have gravel soils.
Commune or Village Appellations of the Left-Bank
The following appellations have high amounts of gravel in the soil and can, therefore ripen, Cabernet Sauvignon reliably. That means the following wines have more Cabernet Sauvignon grapes and less Merlot grapes in them.
Margaux wines are always dry red wines. (If a Margaux producer wants to make a white wine, they have to label it as Bordeaux AOC and not as Margaux AOC)
These wines are always dry, red wines too. Pauillac is where the largest concentration of Premier Cru Château are located. For example, Château Mouton-Rothschild, Château Latour, and Château Lafite Rothschild. We don’t need to know that for our WSET Level 2 in Wines exam. However, it’s great to know that Pauillac is considered THE epicenter for premium wines in Bordeaux!
Fun fact: The word ’graves’ translates to ‘gravel’ in English. This region makes both dry red and dry white wines and the best of them are ageable wines.
Makes both dry red and dry white wines. In fact, Péssac-Léognan is a smaller appellation INSIDE Graves. Look at it in the free downloadable map below!
Know this for your exam!!
The Style and Quality of the Wines:
These commune/village appellation wines (Margaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan, and Pauillac) are outstanding wines and the best can age for decades.
These wines are dry, full-bodied red wines made from predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon. This gives these wines mouth-drying tannin and mouthwatering acid in equal amounts so they will need some bottle ageing before being ready to drink. They can also be expected to age for some time. (Or you can eat them with a fatty steak to smooth out those tannins if you pop the cork on the wine before it is ready!)
How do they taste? The wines have pronounced aromas and flavours of black fruits (blackberry, blackcurrant), oak flavours of smoke, vanilla and cloves, and can develop tertiary characteristics of dried fruits, earth and forest floor.
We’ll return to discuss our wine map of Bordeaux after these special messages from our sponsor…
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Tips for Reading a Bordeaux Wine Label
- if a Bordeaux wine label says Grand Cru Classé, Cru Classé, Granc Cru, Cru Bourgeois or Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnelle, the wine inside will be some of the best from that region
- What do I mean by ‘best of that region’? Your WSET Textbook makes it clear that wines from smaller village or commune sites such as Margaux, Pauillac, Graves and Péssac-Léognan have higher quality wines that show more fruit concentration, higher alcohol levels and better ageing capability than wines from larger, regional appellations such as Haut-Médoc. So although these labelling terms mean that they are the stand-out wines, you have to put that into context of which region the wines are in. See more detail below
Grand Cru Classé/ Cru Classé
The best wines from the Left-Bank were classified a long time ago (in 1855) and are therefore allowed to put the ‘Grand Cru Classé or Cru Classe’ on their label. For WSET Level 2, this means wines from Haut-Médoc, Margaux, Pauillac, Péssac-Léognan, Graves and Sauternes.
You don’t need to know this yet, but there are 5 levels of ranking with the Grand Cru Classé/ Cru Classé wine of the Left Bank – First Growth, or Premier Cru, Second Growth, or Deuxième Cru… all the way to Fifth Growth, or Cinquième Cru. Obviously, Premier Cru wines are the very best in the world and are more concentrated in flavour, and structure and have longer new oak barrel ageing than wines that are Fifth Growth. These are not listed on the labels and you have to look them up.
To be sure, there are only 5 First Growths or Premier Cru estates. They are not listed in your WSET Level 2 book so you are not required to know them for your exam. However, you may have heard of them before? These are Château Margaux, Château Lafite-Rothschild, Château Mouton-Rotshchild, Château Latour and Château Haut-Brion. These are considered some of the best wines from the area and often can be cellared for decades. That also means they can fetch some darn high prices!
Most sources don’t put St Émilion Grand Cru wines in the same ‘Grand Cru Classé’ category as your WSET textbook does. That’s because it has a different rating system than the the wines of the Left Bank. Either way, St. Émilion Grand Cru wines are a step up in quality, price and ageability than wines labelled with the basic St Émilion AOC.
Then there’s sweet, little Pomerol. It’s the other village appellation you need to know from the Right Bank for your WSET Level 2 exam (see map). Pomerol has no official classification system at all! Yet, this area is soo small and the wines are highly sought after so these wines fetch really high prices (and are generally outstanding wines) too.
Unfortunately, there were many estates that didn’t exist or were run poorly on the Left Bank in 1855 when the original Grand Cru Classé wines were ranked. This meant that many were sadly left out of the Grand Cru Classé rating system.
Therefore, the label Cru Bourgeois was created to indicate to consumers wines that are a step above the rest of the appellation – while rated below the Grand Cru Classé/ Cru Classé wines. Indeed, some of these wines are very good to outstanding in quality and have long ageing potential.
Wines rated Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnelle (not in your WSET Level 2 textbook) are event better than the Cru Bourgeois wines. It tells you that these wines have more fruit concentration, and are likely able to be cellared for a few years time.
Seeing ‘Château’ on a Bordelais wine bottle means that all of the grapes that went into the wine are from the producer’s own vineyards and they do not purchase grapes from elsewhere.
Location Factors: Right Bank Appellations of Bordeaux
The right bank is north of the Dordogne River and east of the Gironde Estuary.
Grape Growing and Winemaking Options:
These wines are blends with mostly Merlot with a little Cabernet Sauvignon added in the blend.
This is beyond WSET Level 2… However, on the right bank, Merlot is THE star grape. Therefore, more Merlot DOES NOT NECESSARILY mean ‘early drinking’ like it does on the Left Bank. This all has to do with the limestone soils on the right bank.
As a matter of fact, the most age-worthy wines of the right bank are predominantly Merlot! Remember, the art of blending is a Bordelais specialty. These wines will be backed by some Cabernet Sauvignon and are also aged in small new, oak barrels for extended periods. The oak add oxygenation for softening and smoothing and adds flavours such as vanilla, smoke and cloves.
Location Factors: Regional Appellations of the Right Bank
Regional appellation on the Right Bank include Bordeaux AOC and Bordeaux Supérieur AOC – same as on the Left Bank. Remember: these are regional appellations that cover large areas and are sites that produce basic/ generic wines meant for early consumption.
Location Factors: Commune or Village Appellations of the Right Bank
- Saint-Émilion AOC
- Saint-Émilion Grand Cru AOC
- Pomerol AOC
If a wine mentions St. Émilion, St. Émilion Grand Cru or Pomerol on the label, the wine will always be red. If the producer makes a white wine, they have to label it with a different AOC such as the generic Bordeaux AOC.
Beyond WSET Level 2: The best Merlot grapes come from the esteemed limestone escarpment on the Right Bank. Why? Limestone soils are cool. The cool soils slow down the ripening of Merlot grapes giving it time to develop complex characteristics.
Know this for your exam!!
The Style and Quality of the Wines:
Outstanding quality wines from these appellations (Saint-Émilion Grand Cru, and Pomerol) are dry, red wines made from mostly Merlot grapes. They are full-bodied with pronounced aromas of black fruits and flavours of smoke, vanilla and cloves from oak maturation. They can age well in the bottle developing complex aromas of dried fruit and tobacco.
Let’s get sipping, shall we?!
The White Wines of Bordeaux
Grape Growing and Winemaking Options:
In the white wines of Bordeaux, Sauvignon Blanc adds acidity to blends and is the primary blending
partner in Bordeaux AOC (and Bordeaux Supérieur AOC but WSET Level 2 only needs you to know Bordeaux AOC for white wines). It’s the grape, Sémillon that adds body and ageability to wines in a blend.
The generic regional appellations such as Bordeaux will generally be unoaked. However, when we move up the quality AOC ladder to Graves and Pessac-Léognan, the best wines will be aged in small, new oak barrels which will help the wines age and add create flavours of honey and nuts in the bottle.
Location Factors: Regional Appellations:
Bordeaux AOC + Bordeaux Supérieur AOC (for both dry red and dry white wines)
Bordeaux AOC are simple inexpensive wines meant for early consumption. When it’s a white wine, this is mostly made with Sauvignon Blanc which is sometimes blended with some Sémillon. (That’s why you’ll find Bordeaux AOC listed under the Sauvignon Blanc chapter, but NOT in your chapter on Sémillon – because Sémillon is the minor blending partner in this case).
There is also the Bordeaux Supérieur AOC appellation which is only mentioned in your chapter on Merlot, but I thought you should know that it also applies to white wines and simply means that the wine was made with grapes picked at slightly lower yields and has stricter regulations with higher minimum alcohol levels before release. As a result a white wine or red wine labelled Bordeaux Supérieur AOC generally has a bit more fruit/flavour concentration than a wine labelled Bordeaux AOC
Village/ Commune Appellations for Dry, White Bordeaux Wines:
- Péssac-Léognan AOC
- Graves AOC
Pessac-Léognan AOC and Graves AOC make both dry red and white wines and you are expected to know that for your WSET Level 2 in Wines exam. Many of these wines are unoaked. However, we’ll discuss the white wines here and top wines will be aged in small, new oak barrels. These wines can therefore age and develop yummy notes of nuts and honey!
The best estates are allowed to use the term ‘Cru Classe‘ on their labels. (This is such a great shopping tip for picking up your next great bottle of Bordeaux wine!)
Know this for your exam!!
The Style and Quality of the Wines:
Outstanding wines matured in oak are labelled as Graves AOC Cru Classé or Péssac-Léognan AOC Cru Classé. The wines are made primarily with Sauvignon Blanc and are often blended with some Sémillon. The wines are white, dry and have herbaceous aromas with green fruits (apple and gooseberry) + aromas from oak (vanilla, smoke) and once aged will also have notes of honey and nuts.
The Sweet White Wines of Bordeaux
Location Factors: Sauternes AOC
Sauternes is located on the edge of the Garonne River at a bend. This creates the perfect conditions where noble rot can survive. The fog comes from a bend in the Garonne River that creates misty mornings. However, the sun comes out and the mists dissipate in the afternoon.
Grape Growing and Winemaking Options:
Just like the rest of Bordeaux, Sauternes wines are blends. But the most important variety that makes up most of the wines is Sémillon – a grape with thin skins which makes it highly susceptible to botrytis (noble rot).
That’s why producers plant more Sémillon here (grape growing options). Moreover, I think we should know that Sémillon can be backed up with some Sauvignon Blanc that adds acidity to the blend (Note: WSET decided to remove Sauvignon Blanc from the Sauternes section in Level 2 in Wines book but you might as well understand this now since it is so consistent with the Bordelais philosophy – ie blended wines, the top wines have new oak ageing!)
Yes, that’s right! Even the sweet white wines of Bordeaux are put into little new oak barrels which add flavours of smoke and vanilla and help the wines to age!
And what happens?
Well, botrytis is a fungus that pokes tiny little holes into the thin-skinned Sémillon. The grapes then shrivel as the water evaporates through the holes. By the end of the season, the grapes are super concentrated in sugar and look like raisons with mold!
In fact, there is so much sugar in them, during fermentation, the yeast simply cannot eat it all! This causes the yeast to die before all of the sugar is consumed. The result is a sweet, white wine with very ripe, raisinated or dried fruit flavours.
Know this for your exam!!
The Style and Quality of Sauternes AOC Wines:
Sauternes wines are very good to outstanding sweet white wines made from Sémillon grapes that go through an extra-ripening process known as noble rot. The wines have medium to high alcohol, full-bodied, showing pronounced flavours of dried apricots, dried mangos, and oaky notes of smoke and vanilla. Due to the acidity from Sauvignon Blanc, oak maturation and sweetness levels, these wines can mature for many years (even decades) in the bottle developing complex tertiary characteristics of dried fruit, honey, and caramel.
Wine Map of Bordeaux
Based on WSET Level 2 in Wines
Bordeaux holds immense significance in the realm of wine, often referred to as the ‘wine lake’ of France due to its prolific production. Understanding this region is paramount, given its prominence. With this Bordeaux map in your possession, you’ll expertly navigate this area for your WSET Level 2 in Wines exam. Happy exploring!
This post invites wine enthusiasts and aspiring sommeliers on an exciting journey toward earning a WSET Level 2 in Wines certification. Exploring the rich heritage of Bordeaux’s esteemed wine estates showcases best on our free, downloadable Bordeaux wine map.
We hope you enjoyed our comprehensive guide for WSET Level 2 exam success.
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