Lesson 3 – France – Part 1

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Sommelier School

Lesson 3

France – General & Bordeaux Part 1

When you think of wine, what country do you think about? If you are like most people, France is very likely the country you think about. France is the standard by which every other country measures itself when it come to wine. Not that they necessarily need to. There are plenty of countries that produce wine as good as the finest producers in France. And there are also wines in France that are just as bad as wine from other countries. But France is where we find some of the best vines, terroir, and experience.


In 1935 France enacted a system to regulate and define it’s wine regions. This law is also the model that most other countries have followed. It is called the AOC or Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. Basically that stands for the regulated place name or origin name. Within this law there are some things to note:

  • French wines are known by their place (i.e. Burgundy or Bordeaux). It’s the equivalent of calling a wine a California in the U.S. And the wines of that place are typically a certain style or contain specific varietals.
  • There is a hierarchy to the place names. Certain areas are supposed to produce better wines than others.
  • The more specific the place name, the better the wine. So if the label specifies the Chateau and even vineyard, it probably is a very high quality wine. If it just says Bordeaux, then it will normally be the lowest quality wine of that region.
  • The wine’s “rank” is always on the label.


There are four ranks in French wine from low to high:

  • Vin de table. This is your ordinary run-of-the mill wine intended for everyday drinking. They will only say “France” on the label. Not normally found here in the U.S. if at all.
  • Vin de pays. aka Country Wine. This wine will have the region after Vin de pays. There are 6 regions for this. Languedoc-Roussillon, Loire Valley, Provence, Corisca, Rhone, and Congac (Bordeaux and Charentes)
  • Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure of VDQS. This stands for demarcated wine of superior quality. A stepping stone to AOC. However after 12/31/2011 will no longer exist.
  • Appellation Contrôlée. Also known as AOC or AC.
  • And wines from one rank can move up or down to another.

Within all of this are further rankings. Like mentioned about, the more specific a label is, the higher the quality in theory. For those of us not up on our French geography this can make things confusing.

There are 8 Main wine regions in France. They are Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhône, Loire, Alsace, Provence, Lanquedoc-Roussillon, and Cahors. The first 5 are considered the top regions in France. Within some of those regions there are sub-regions. And each of those regions tend to specialize in red or white wines. Some produce both. And with that each of these regions/sub-regions concentrate their efforts on specific varietals.

OK, so now that we got that out of the way, let’s tackle the first region on the list – Bordeaux.

Bordeaux is intimidating. It’s regarded as the best wine region in the world by many people. Not that Burgundy isn’t great. And there are many people that will defend Burgundy as being it’s equal. However, we’re not here to decide who is the best.

Bordeaux’s most famous areas are known as the Left and Right Banks. This is determined by the Garrone River, Gironde Estuary and the Dordogne River. The Left Bank is the area west of the Garrone River and Gironde Estuary. The Right bank is to the east of the Estuary and north of the Dordogne River. See the map below.

(Image Used under the GFDL and can be found here)

On the Left Bank there are two important areas; Haut-Médoc and Pessac-Léognan. On the Right; St-Emilion and Pomerol. This difference between the two is the terroir (soil). The Left Bank is mostly gravel and the Right Bank is mostly clay. Because of that, Cabernet Sauvignon is the predominant varietal in the Left Bank, and Merlot in the Right Bank. This also means that Left Bank wines tend to be wines that are aged longer before being drank and Right Bank wines are drunk earlier. Both banks grow both varietals and both are used in their wines. It’s just that Left is Cabernet Sauvignon-based and Right is Merlot-based. The other varietals used in Bordeaux are Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot, and Malbec. All of the wines in the region are a blend of these varietals.

And this is where some of the confusion we in America have with French wine. We are used to wine being marketed as a single varietal or a combination of two varietals. Not a blend. Since Bordeaux wines are all blends (or rarely meet the U.S. requirement of 75% of a single varietal to be called one), Americans are confused about what they are drinking. This is where knowing what’s a Left Bank or Right Bank wine, or understanding the intricacies of each region are very important.

So that means they only do reds? Nope. There are white Bordeaux. The Graves and Pessac-Léognan regions produce excellent dry and sweet whites. Then there are the desert wines of Sauternes. And then the middle region known as Entre-Duex-Mers produce all types of whites from dry to sweet. The main varietals used are Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle.

To confuse matters more, there is also this little thing called the “Classification of 1855.” It comes from the 1855 Exposition in Paris. At this Exposition five “Growths” were created from 61 top red wines; all of which were from the Médoc except for one from what was called Graves at the time but is now part of Pessac-Léognan.

Initially there were four First Growths. They are Château Lafite-Rothschild, Château Latour, Château Margeaux, Château, and Haut-Brion. In 1973, through much lobbying, arm twisting, and cajoling, Château Mouton-Rothschild was rightly elevated from a Second Growth to a First Growth. Other than that, there really hasn’t been any changes in the Growths. While there are some 8.000 Châteaux and over 13,000 wine producers, the list of Five Growths has remained the same. And some of those Growths could be in a different level, and many of the non-Growths could be somewhere in the five growths.

So that’s it right? Nope. St-Emilion and the rest of Pessac-Léognan received their own classifications in 1955 and 1953 respectively. Pessac-Léognan received another classification in 1959. In St-Emilion these classifications are known as Premier Grand Cru Classé, Grand Cru Classé, and Grand Cru. There are 13 Chateaux in the top category. The last major area of Bordeaux is Pomerol and there has never been a classification there.

Whew! That’s a lot of info to digest. And that’s really the tip of the iceberg for Bordeaux. You could spend a lifetime studying Bordeaux. I hope this was a good introduction to Bordeaux. Next week I will go more in depth about Bordeaux.

Thanks for Stopping In,

Mark V. Fusco

Aspiring Sommelier in Training


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