Bordeaux Wines Uncovered: How to sound like an expert on Bordeaux wines

Bordeaux Wines Uncovered – How to sound like an expert on Bordeaux wines?

Learn how to sound like an expert on Bordeaux wines with some easy tips and tricks in this series of articles dedicated on Bordeaux wines.
6 minutes read

Table of Content

Share this article

Whether you are planning to come for a short visit or maybe even move to Bordeaux, you should have some basic wine knowledge. As an expat myself, I understand how intimidating wine talks can be. But trust me, at one point or another, you will need to be able to chat about wine if you want to immerse yourself in the local culture. Bordeaux wines can sound complicated for a non-french person but do not fret. We are here to give you some accessible knowledge to make you sound like an expert on Bordeaux wines.

As certified tour guides in this area of France, we have gathered your wine questions and decided to create BORDEAUX WINES UNCOVERED – a series of articles dedicated to wine. We hope this short, to-the-point series will help you understand the local wines more efficiently.

Master wine terminology and taste Bordeaux wines like a boss

Sounding like a wine expert when discussing Bordeaux wines involves a combination of knowledge and confidence. Trusting your instincts when talking about wine can take you a long way, but you won’t fool anyone unless you know a couple of essential terminology when you talk about Bordeaux wines:

Tasting wine can be considered an art form. Having the correct words and expressions to describe your glass of delicious wine is crucial. Now, some of you might argue that describing a red, alcoholic drink made out of grapes is not that complicated, but when you are in the company of wine experts, having some nice adjectives to add to your wine conversation becomes very handy, trust me.

A wine tasting should start by looking at and analysing the colour of your wine. This is usually done on a white background with a small amount of the liquid, tilting the glass at a 45-degree angle. Colours can tell you a lot about your wine, like its age. You might be thinking, well, there are three colours of wine – red, white and rose. (or pinkish) and you would be wrong. Wine is a lot more nuanced, and we should first assess the intensity of the colour. It can be pale, medium or deep. If we are talking about white wines, we can concentrate on the rim; if it is transparent and almost watery, it should be described as pale; if it starts to look more “yellowish”, it could be deep. When it comes to reds, you can determine if it is pale or deep by looking at the steam of your glass upright. If you can see the bottom, it is pale. If you can not, it is indeed deep. Now, if we are talking colours for white wines, you can use nuances such as lemon, gold or amber (the deeper the colour, the older the vintage) for reds – ruby, purple, garnet or tawny. The next step of a tasting is distinguishing your aromas. Regarding wine-tasting etiquette, it is important to remember something that I like to call the first nose, swirl, second nose rule. Put your nose inside of your glass and take a deep breath. Think about what aromas or smells you can detect. After that, swirl the wine in your glass and repeat the same for your second nose. Is it different, more fruity, more intense? It can get complicated here if you are not a wine consumer. A specialist can determine the primary, secondary and tertiary aromas, bringing different information about the wine and its characteristics. But as I said, we are going to keep it simple, so here are some professional words to describe the aromas of your wine – fruity, floral, citrus fruit, red fruit, black fruit, spicy, grassy or herbal (primary aromas), buttery, oaky (vanilla, coconut, chocolate, coffee) or bready or yeasty (secondary aromas) leather, mushroom, tobacco for red and honey, caramel or petrol for whites (all tertiary.) For example, you can say: This red has a lovely bouquet (The complex and developed aromas of a mature wine) of red fruits and spiciness, accompanied by a long oaky finish (the sensation after you have finished tasting your wine. The longevity of this sensation is an important factor of quality)

Finally, it is time for you to take a sip and swirl it around, coating the inside of your mouth. It is an important step to open up your palate. Think about the balance of your wine. Is the combination of acidity, tannins (compounds in grape skins, seeds, and stems contribute to a wine’s structure and ageing potential), sweetness and alcohol harmonious? The sweetness can tell you if your wine is dry (a wine with no residual sugar, not sweet), the acidity will give it freshness, the tannins will make your wine more or less estranged (feel dry in the mouth), and the alcohol will give it more body (how the wine feels in your mouth).

Those are just some of the words and expressions you can use during a tasting. That being said, remember – at the end of the day, taste, feeling, and aromas are all very personal; don’t let people intimidate you with their opinions.

What is terroir?

The word terroir is derived from the French word terre, which means land or soil. This illustrious word that exists in the French language does not have a direct translation in English. When used in correlation to wine, it encompasses a blend of soil composition, geographical position, weather influence and the know-how of men. The notion of terroir indicates that wines from different regions in France or diverse terroir have unique and individual characteristics. Based on all the factors the terroir consists of, winemakers can also decide on winegrowing and winemaking techniques to guarantee the best results.

What is an appellation?

AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée), or “the appellations”, is a geographical notion, a region where you can produce a specific product and guarantee its high quality and authenticity. Currently, in Bordeaux, we have 65 appellations, and each has a set of rules for producing Bordeaux wine. Bordeaux wines are often associated with terms like “left bank” and “right bank,” which refer to the two central regions on either side of the Gironde River. Each of these regions is further divided into appellations: on the left bank, we have the famous Medoc area, for example, and on the right bank, you taste some rich Libournais. Within these prominent appellations, you can also discover some sub-regions, such as Margaux and Pauillac, where you can enjoy some of the most famous wines in the world.

What are the classifications?

The Bordeaux wine classification is a system that refers to how wines are categorised here, each corresponding to different rules and regulations. The first ever classification, demanded by the emperor Napoleon 3, was created in 1855 for the Exposition Universelle de Paris. He considered that French wines were too complicated to be understood by foreign visitors, so he tasked the Bordeaux brokers to create this system of levels corresponding to the quality of the wine. The wines were ranked into five classes (from first to fifth growths) in the Médoc region (4) and one in Pessac-Leognan, with a separate classification for Sauternes and Barsac sweet wines. To this day, these chateaux continue to reign as the world’s most renowned winemakers. First Growth (Premier Cru): Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Latour, Château Margaux, Château Haut-Brion (Pessac-Leognan), Château Mouton Rothschild (added in 1973.) The most famous chateaux for the Sauternes and Barsac Classification (1855), which is a  classification for sweet white wines included top estates such as Château d’Yquem.

Another classification of great importance that concerns the right bank this time is the Saint Emilion classification. Unlike the 1855, this one is renewed and revised every ten years. The classification includes three categories: Premier Grand Cru Classé A, Premier Grand Cru Classé B, and Grand Cru Classé. Current A classified chateaux are Chateaux Pavie and Chataux Figac. 

Learn the typical Bordeaux grape varieties.

My years of experience as a guide taught me that when it comes to grape varieties and blends, foreign visitors have trouble understanding why they are not written on the label of the wine – front and centre. French wines sometimes (but not always) have the grape variety and percentages used on the back of the bottle, which seems confusing to some. How do they know what grape variety their wine is made of if it is not written? With a risk of sounding pretentious, French people know that each winemaking appellation has primary grape varieties or even blends and what they are. They learn it in school, with their ABCs, you know – the alphabet and what wine you can drink in Burgundy, for example. Just kidding.

So, the classic Bordeaux wines will primarily include a mix of five grape varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. These grapes are strategically blended to achieve unique and exquisite tastes, resulting in wines that showcase the best of each terroir.

Medoc is known for predominately using Cabernet Sauvignon, its bold structure and firm tannins often dominating the blend, providing depth and ageing potential. In Saint Emilion, however, Merlo is the ruling grape variety, giving the wines in this appellation more fruitiness, roundness, and softness. Winemakers carefully craft these blends to express the region’s nuances and each vintage’s unique characteristics.

Learn some essential wines and vintages, the art of namedropping

Some of the most iconic and esteemed wine estates lie in the heart of the illustrious Bordeaux region. Among the celebrated names, Château Margaux stands as a paragon of elegance, its wines embodying the quintessence of the Margaux appellation. Château Latour’s storied history and exceptional Cabernet Sauvignon showcase the prowess of Pauillac.

Venturing into the charming village of Saint-Émilion, one encounters the legendary Château Cheval Blanc, revered for its Merlot and Cabernet Franc blends. Just a few minutes from there, Pomerol’s Château Pétrus commands attention with its rare and highly sought-after offerings.
These illustrious estates, alongside Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Haut-Brion, and others, form the pantheon of Bordeaux’s wine aristocracy.

Of course, the most critical part of feeling and talking like a wine expert is having confidence and enjoying drinking wine.

If you want to visit Bordeaux and Saint Emilion with a state-certified, wine-loving, local guide, consider booking one of our fantastic Wine tours HERE!

Photo credit (cover): Esperanza33 via Canva

So, you're interested in Bordeaux ?
Discover our tours and book now!