Regional guides

Getting to know Bordeaux

Bordeaux beginners, take note. Our buyer Tim Sykes offers an introduction to one of the most renowned wine regions in the world, and recommends some textbook wines to show you just what Bordeaux can do at a variety of prices.


Bordeaux is a region with a long history of providing high quality wines to the British market, and remains popular among Wine Society members. It is also a large and complex region, so it can be daunting to wade through our substantial offering. I have chosen a small selection here that encapsulates the best of Bordeaux. From the oft-overlooked dry whites, through the quirky clairet rosé and the long-lived sweet wines of Sauternes, to the array of reds from across the region, we have something for all tastes.

Where to start: Bordeaux and Bordeaux supérieur

Bordeaux is best known for its reds – also widely referred to in this country as ‘claret’. The more simple (and most keenly priced) clarets are made predominantly from merlot, a variety that ripens easily and produces soft, plump wines. The merlot is often blended with some cabernet franc or cabernet sauvignon to add structure and depth of flavour. In general the best value examples are unoaked, to avoid masking the fresh fruit flavours. The most modestly priced wines are labelled as Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur; you’ll find two excellent examples here from Château Canada and Château Thieuley.

Famous appellations

The top wines made mainly from merlot can be found in Saint-Emilion and Pomerol on the right bank of the Gironde estuary and the River Dordogne. The other widely planted red variety is cabernet sauvignon, particularly successful in the so-called left bank vineyards of the Bordeaux region, west and northwest of the city of Bordeaux. Cabernet sauvignon takes more sun to ripen than merlot and thrives in the well-drained, gravel soils that dominate famous appellations such as Margaux, Pauillac and Saint-Julien. Cabernet sauvignon dominant wines tend to display more dark fruit and savoury flavours, have more acidity and be more structured than their merlot-based counterparts. They also keep for longer.


A step up: the Côtes

Bordeaux has a hierarchy of regional appellations, and for this feature I have selected wines that reflect the appellation on the label. The next step up the quality ladder after Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur are the ‘Côtes’ appellations, which include wines from Castillon, Bourg, Blaye, Francs and others. Again these are merlot- dominant, but some are aged in wooden barrels, adding extra dimension to the flavours and texture.

Appellation: generic term for a demarcated region producing wine; can also include rules specifiying grape varieties and production methods.

Claret: traditional term for red wine from Bordeaux: derived from the French term ‘clairet’ used in the 16th century to describe light red wines from the region imported to England.

Sauternes: famous sweet wine of Bordeaux, made from sauvignon blanc, semillon and muscadelle grapes affected by the fungus botrytis cinerea or ‘noble rot’, causing the grapes to lose water and concentrating their natural sugars.

Blending: combining of different grape varieties to produce the final wine. Bordeaux uses blending to great effect, most commonly cabernet sauvignon and merlot with some petit verdot for the red wines, and sauvignon blanc with semillon for the white.

Dry white Bordeaux & sauternes

I have included a couple of interesting dry whites in this feature. One is from the 2022 vintage from our old friends the Despagne family Château (Bel Air Perponcher). Like much white wine from Bordeaux, it’s made mainly from sauvignon blanc, but includes a small amount of semillon and a splash of muscadelle. It’s unoaked, refreshing and aromatic. The other white, from Château Rahoul, is at the other end of the taste spectrum; from 2016, it is a fully mature example of oak-aged semillon, with a small proportion of sauvignon. It is proof that good Bordeaux white can age well. We also include a wonderful sweet wine from Sauternes, which is close to 30 years old.

Tim Sykes

Society Buyer

Tim Sykes

Tim Sykes joined The Society in March 2012. Tim is responsible for the purchasing of Bordeaux, Beaujolais and Sherry.

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