St Estèphe is the most northern of Médoc communal crus. Its unique terroir is made up of layers of gravel which are supported by a dense clay base. This subsoil retains water in dry seasons and works particularly well with Merlot, a largely planted variety which is used to flesh out Cabernet Sauvignon. This clay base also creates powerful, textured tannins which enable St Estèphe to stand out from the pack. Like St Julien, it is one of the four most important communal appellations of the Médoc which does not contain any first growths, despite its southern border being a stone’s throw from Château Lafite. Nonetheless, it is home to some excellent châteaux such as Cos d’Estournel, Montrose, Calon Ségur and Lafon Rochet.
Due south of St Estèphe lies Pauillac, the king of the Left Bank communes. It is home to three first growths as well as a plethora of other classified growths. Its renowned well-draining, gravelly soils enable its dominant grape Cabernet Sauvignon to reach fantastic heights of complexity and concentration. As a result, the wines tend to be full-bodied with compact tannins and good freshness. Its aromatics are often what one associates with classic Bordeaux: pencil shavings, black currant and occasional mint. Some of the most famous châteaux of the commune are Latour, Mouton Rothschild, Lafite Rothschild, Pichon Baron, Pichon Lalande and Lynch Bages.
St Julien is like the middle child of the Médoc – not as assertive as Pauillac or as coquettish as Margaux. It lies firmly between the two more outspoken communes and as a result produces a blend of them both. Its wines have often been sought out by aficionados for their balance and consistency, particularly in the UK. Yet due to its middle child nature, it can occasionally be overlooked globally and as a result underrated by those markets outside the UK. Despite the fact that it has no first growths, it has several second growths including Léoville Las Cases, Léoville Barton, Léoville Poyferré and Ducru Beaucaillou as well as the celebrated châteaux such as Talbot and Beychevelle.
Plump, silky and seductive are the words often used to describe wines from Margaux. Because of their style, they tend to be user friendly and more approachable when young. This is in part due to its terroir which is comprised of the thinnest soil as well as the highest proportion of chunky gravel in all of the Médoc. It drains well but also is it more susceptible to vintage variation. The wines tend to have the highest proportions of Merlot within the “core” of the Médoc further adding to its ample roundness and openness. It is home to the largest number of classified growths including its namesake first growth, Château Margaux, as well as third growths, Palmer and d’Issan.
Located directly south of the city of Bordeaux, the district of Graves was named after the intense gravel terrain which heavily dominates the soil and which was deposited during the last Ice Age. Besides being well draining, it also adds profound mineral complexity to its wines. In addition, it is the only appellation within the region that is equally famous for red and white wines. For many years, it was considered the premium Bordelais wine region and its most famous château, Haut Brion, was collected by the likes of renowned enthusiasts, Thomas Jefferson and Samuel Pepys. In 1987, the communal appellation, Pessac-Léognan, was created distinguishing a “cru” from within the larger Graves district. As it is a warmer region, its grapes are often picked 2-3 weeks earlier than the Médoc. The most renowned châteaux of this communal appellation include Haut Brion, La Mission Haut Brion, Laville Haut Brion, Haut Bailly and Domaine de Chevalier.
The small sub-region of Pomerol is situated northeast of the industrious city of Libourne. Its soils are predominately iron-rich clay with a smattering of gravel that produce wines with extraordinary power and depth. As a result of this clay-dominance, it has the highest percentage of Merlot planted in all of Bordeaux. Certain châteaux are produced exclusively from this grape, but most incorporate smaller quantities of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc as well. Despite its hefty (if not exclusive) proportion of Merlot, many people think of wines from this region as separate entities. As one wine aficionado stated recently, “It’s not Merlot. It’s Pomerol.” Despite the region’s small size, it contains some of the world’s most sought after (and expensive) wines includingPétrus, Le Pin, Lafleur, l’Evangile and Vieux Château Certan. Unlike other Bordelais subregions, there is no system of classification. The châteaux are traded on reputation alone.
South of Pomerol lies the medieval, perched village of St Emilion. Surrounding this village are vines that produce round , rich and often hedonistic wines. Despite a myriad of soil types, two main ones dominate – the gravelly, limestone slopes that delve down to the valley from the plateau and the valley itself which is comprised of limestone, gravel, clay and sand. Despite its popularity today, it was not until the 1980s to early 1990s that attention was brought to this region. Robert Parker, the famous wine critic, began reviewing their Merlot-dominated wines and giving them hefty scores. The rest is history as they say. Similar to the Médoc, there is a classification system in place which dates from 1955 and outlines several levels of quality. These include its regional appellation of St Emilion, St Emilion Grand Cru, St Emilion Grand Cru Classé and St Emilion Premier Grand Cru Classé, which is further divided into “A” (Ausone and Cheval Blanc) and “B” (including Angélus, Canon, Figeacand a handful of others). To ensure better accuracy, the classification is redone every 10 years enabling certain châteaux to be upgraded or downgraded depending on on the quality of their more recent vintages.