Bordeaux indigenous grapes

Meet the fruit behind the stars


Before we kick off into the weird world of undiscovered Bordeaux, we need to chat about the two varietals that dominate Bordeaux blends — Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Cabernet Sauvignon is the second most widely-planted grape in the region, but is the principal grape used in Bordeaux blends on the left bank of the Gironde river. It’s a grape that can create wines with incredible depth and intensity, and because of its quality tannins and acidity, also enables the wine it produces to continue to improve with age for impressive lengths of time.

The most-planted grape in Bordeaux is Merlot, a super-popular red wine grape that is used as the main grape in blends on the right bank of the Garonne, in appellations such as Pomerol and St. Émillion. Merlot’s wines can be super plush and silky thanks to velvety-smooth tannins and flavours of rich orchard fruits.

Grapes were introduced to the perfect climate of Bordeaux by the Romans, but in the 17th century it was actually the Dutch who drained the marshlands of the Médoc to make way for vineyards. Once the ground underfoot was dry and the vines took hold, it quickly became noted for the high quality of the wines the area produced — first Malbec, then later, Cabernet Sauvignon, as it remains today.

Dark and inky and packed with strong tannins, Malbec is mainly used as a blending tool in Bordeaux, rather than a single varietal. It’s much more popular in the South West of France where it’s known as “Cot”.

Cabernet Sauvignon, while believed for a long, long time to be an ancient wild grape variety, is actually the child of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Cabernet Franc is an aromatic red grape variety found indigenously in the Bordeaux region, and while used in blends, can make deliciously fresh and herby-savoury-flavoured wines with interest and acidity.

Unexpectedly, the other parent of Cab Sauv is actually a white grape. Sauvignon Blanc is an important variety in Bordeaux, used in dry white Bordeaux blends, and in the sweet white wines of the region — namely Sauternes and Bausac. It has flavours of citrus fruits and honeysuckle, and can be a little appley too.

Bordeaux’s famous dessert wines mostly feature Sémillion, an aromatic grape that, like Riesling, is loved by the “noble rot” fungus Botrytis. This means that when left to succumb to this purply-grey fuzz, the juice becomes honeyed and sweet, creating a rich wine full of floral aromas, sweet melon and tropical flavours and decadent texture. As a dry wine, Sémillon has flavours of grass, pear and lime.

Late-ripening Petit Verdot is used in red Bordeaux blends, and it has a variety of unusual attributes. When young, it can smell like banana and fresh wood shavings. When aged, it becomes aromatic with violets and leathery notes — it can sometimes seem like it adds a confectionary edge.

The crossing of Merlot and Foille Blanche created Merlot Blanc, which was first discovered in the late 1800s. It’s a rare grape variety, and is used to blend with Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc in dry white Bordeaux wines.

Simple, delicate Muscadelle smells and tastes like what it is: freshly pressed white grape juice. The name might be similar to Muscadet but it’s not related at all, and it’s used as a minor blending grape in Sauternes.

You might also see the rich-sounding Sauvignonasse, a name fit for a particularly pompous prince in a fairy story. It is actually a renamed Friuliano, or Sauvignon Vert, prevalent mostly in Veneto and Friuli in Northern Italy. So, while it’s found in Bordeaux, it’s not used in great quantities.

An OG Bordeaux wine grape that was everywhere in the region at one point in history was Carmenere. Planted in huge quantities around the Médoc on the left bank, its demise in the area came from powdery mildew infections, phylloxera and the changing climate — Carmenere prefers warm, dry weather, and nowadays finds Bordeaux too damp and chilly to thrive. It was actually considered extinct in France at the turn of the 20th century, and while you may find some Carmenere in your Bordeaux blends if you look hard enough, it’s certainly considered a rare find in Bordeaux. If you fancy trying it, look to Chile, where the grape is thriving, and being used in single cru experiments as well as more traditionally in blends.

A note on “claret”

If you’ve heard red wines being referred to as “claret” and wondered which grapes made up this particular wine, you might be interested to learn that the name actually comes from a type of wine made under the Bordeaux Clairet AOC. Clairet is a dark pink light-bodied red (which you could get away with calling a dark rosé) made with any combination of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Carmenère, Merlot rouge, Malbec or Petit Verdot grapes. It was the main style of wine made in the Bordeaux region in the middle ages, and although now claret refers to red wine from the area more generally, it’s quite nice to know the origins of these little wine words isn’t it?

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