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Located around the Gironde estuary and along the Dordogne and Garonne rivers, Bordeaux is one of France’s most important wine-producing regions. The groundwork was laid when the Dutch drained the marshes of the Medoc in the 17th century. Then climate is maritime and as humid as it was when the land was covered in marshes instead of vineyards, leading to a variety of viticultural problems, such as rot and mildew.
Bordeaux can be divided into four major regions. The Medoc is the area west of the Gironde and upstream (north) of the city of Bordeaux. It includes the major communes (roughly north to south) of St-Estephe, Pauillac, Saint-Julien, and Margaux. The “right bank” refers to the area east of the Dordogne. It includes the communes of St-Emilion and Pomerol. Graves comprises the area downstream (south) of the city of Bordeaux. The first growth Haut-Brion is located here. This area is also well-known for the sweet wines of Sauternes. Finally, the Entre-Deux-Mers is the area between the Dordogne and Garonne.
In 1855, Napoleon III asked the brokers of Bordeaux to create a formal classification of the wines of the Medoc. The properties, rather than the vineyards, were ranked in a system that endures surprisingly well today. The first growths as they stand are Ch. Lafite Rothschild, Ch. Latour, Ch. Margaux, Ch. Haut-Brion (included even though it is in Graves), and Ch. Mouton Rothschild. The only change to this list occurred when Ch. Mouton Rothschild was promoted from second-growth status in 1973 after decades of effort on the part of its owner. There are five tiers of classed growths (first growth, second, etc). Below this are properties classified Cru Bourgeois; after this come the wines that carry the name of the commune, then the area, then simply Bordeaux. The right bank was not classified until 1955, a hundred years after the Medoc, and Graves received its classification in 1959.
Red Bordeaux is made, in order of importance, from Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, and Carmenere. The wines of the Medoc are dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon; those of the right bank are composed of a greater proportion of Merlot.
The second most famous wines from this region are botrytized dessert wines such as those from Sauternes. These are made largely from Semillon with a bit of Sauvignon Blanc, are also extremely ageworthy, and can command prices to rival those of the greatest first-growth red Bordeaux.
Dry white Bordeaux ranges in style from fresh, zippy, and youthful to rich, serious, and often barrel-aged. The former is usually composed mostly of Sauvignon Blanc, with Semillon and Muscadelle playing a supporting role. The latter typically contains a much greater proportion of Semillon and often has the potential for long aging.
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