Let's learn the grape varieties and styles of red Bordeaux – Bordeaux Rouge,– and explore the wines and wineries that make them.
What Grape Varieties Are in Red Bordeaux?
Red Bordeaux is almost always a blend of grape varieties with strict rules as to which wine varieties are allowed.
- Cabernet Sauvignon – A primary variety. Cabernet Sauvignon adds dense black fruit flavors, floral violet, and minerality to the blend with high tannins.
- Merlot – The most planted red grape variety in Bordeaux, Merlot gives generous fruit flavors and polished, refined tannins to Bordeaux rouge.
- Cabernet Franc – The rarest primary variety, Cabernet Franc offers some savory, leafy flavors along with rich red berry notes. It has a taste structure similar to Merlot.
- Malbec – A blending grape in red Bordeaux. Malbec gives deep blueberry notes and chocolate-like bitterness.
- Carménère – A rare blending grape in red Bordeaux, Carménère adds savory tobacco-like notes with rich red berry flavors.
- Petit Verdot – In many cases, Petit Verdot is only allowed in up to 10% of the blend because it can add so much deep color and high tannin. Still, when used delicately it brings intense aromas of blueberry and violets.
The other red wine grapes allowed in red Bordeaux wines were added recently to adapt to climate change (Dec 2020). These grapes include Touriga Nacional, Castet, Marselan, and Arinarnoa. Blending is allowed up to 10% of a red Bordeaux blend.
What Does Red Bordeaux Taste Like?
Given that there are 3 primary red wine varieties (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc) in red Bordeaux, you can expect 3 major styles.
Cabernet Sauvignon Dominant Red Bordeaux
This is the most sought-after style of red Bordeaux even though Cabernet Sauvignon is the second most planted grape. Wines typically taste full-bodied and very structured (e.g. they have high tannin!).
Expect aromas of black currant (earthy dark berries), black cherry, blueberry, graphite, violet, tobacco smoke, pencil lead, and crushed rocks.
To find this style, look for wines labeled as Cabernet Sauvignon (indicating they contain at least 85% of the variety) or seek out a blend with at least 50% dedicated to the variety.
Additionally, you can look into the eight appellations in the Médoc which specialize in producing Cabernet Sauvignon based blends.
Merlot Dominant Red Bordeaux
This is the most readily available red Bordeaux blend and often the most popular because of Merlot's generous, fruity style and polished texture (e.g. it has smooth tannins!).
Expect aromas and flavors of black raspberry, black currant sauce (cassis), chocolate, dried tobacco, spice box, plums, lavender, and wet iron-rich rocks.
Today, some producers in Bordeaux now label their wines with the dominant varieties, so you can easily identify a Merlot blend. That being said, most producers label by the appellation name, so it's useful to know which regions specialize in Merlot.
The Libournais area (also known as the "Right Bank") specializes in Merlot blends and includes the famous appellations of Pomerol and Saint-Émilion. As a side note, it's common to see these appellations blending Merlot with Cabernet Franc.
Cabernet Franc Dominant Red Bordeaux
Cabernet Franc as a primary varietal wine (or blend) in red Bordeaux is up-and-coming because there isn't a lot planted throughout the region. Cabernet Franc feels like the happy medium between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon: it has rich, savory tones like Cabernet Sauvignon and a polished texture with smooth tannins similar to Merlot.
Expect aromas of black cherry, plum, and cassis matched with savory notes of tobacco, cured meats, pencil lead, and crushed rocks. Cabernet Franc often delivers a subtle dried leafy note, similar to the smell of fall leaves.
A lot of the Cabernet Franc vineyards in Bordeaux are on the "Right Bank" in Libournais. Lately, there has been a resurgence of interest for this grape, so prices can get high from the appellations of Saint-Émilion. That being said, we found a couple using Cabernet Franc in the red wine only appellation of Entre-Deux-Mers called Cadillac – Côtes de Bordeaux.