Just two things make a Bordeaux wine a "Bordeaux."
– The wines are crafted by winemakers for wineries and chateaus within the Bordeaux region of France.
– The wines are blended from two or more specific grape varietals born of and grown within the Bordeaux region.
Bordeaux wines can be either red or white. However, the region has tended to be known for its reds much more than its whites. The fact that nearly 90 percent of all vineyards located in the more than 60 appellations of Bordeaux are planted with red grape varietals is a telltale sign that the French winemakers of the region prefer their red blends.
A traditional Bordeaux red contains juice from five varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. Bordeaux farms also have small percentages of Carmenere vines planted, but the first five are the traditional ingredients for a red Bordeaux wine.
Other regions around the world make Bordeaux blends, including almost every big-name (and not-so-big name) winery in the vast Napa and Sonoma regions of California. Chateau St. Jean's 1996 Cinq Cepages, for instance, was famously named Wine Specatator's Wine of the Year in 1999. While the winery itself considers its flagship blend a Cabernet Sauvignon (as it has virtually always relied heavily on that grape varietal) and not a "Meritage," the 1996 still was a beautiful take on a Bordeaux-style blend.
Meritage, incidentally, is a made-up word that sprouted from a contest run by an association of U.S. wineries in 1989. Seeking a unifying way to identify Bordeaux-style wine blends made on non-French soil, the association solicited and received more than 6,000 entries. The combination of "Merit" and "Heritage" won the day.
However, much like Champagne can only come from the Champagne region of France, true Bordeaux wines only hail from Bordeaux appellations. Bordeaux-style wines also do not always incorporate percentages of all five traditional Bordeaux grape varietals.
Different appellations within Bordeaux tend to feature either cabernet sauvignon or merlot as their primary. St. Emilion, for instance, from where hail Premier Grand Cru Classe A wines such as Chateau Pavie, Cheval Blanc and Angelus, features the softer merlot in larger percentages. In fact, of all the red grapes planted in Bordeaux, merlot planting outpaces second-place cabernet sauvignon by more than two-to-one. Merlot vines make up more than 60 percent of all red grapes planted in the region, while cabernet sauvignon makes up about 25 percent. The remaining varietals combined are only 11 to 15 percent.
White Bordeaux varietals include sauvignon blanc, semillon, muscadelle and sauvignon gris. These white varietals, while in regular blends are far overshadowed by their red counterparts, provide the centerpiece for some of the best dessert wines in the world — from Sauternes.
While the word Bordeaux may elicit the romantic, mysterious notion of wine as a magical substance, the truth is so much simpler. Whether it's big red, acidic white or sweet dessert, Bordeaux wines are crafted in a certain way by makers located in a specific part of the world. Those are the attributes that make them Bordeaux.