French Wine 201: Affordable Bordeaux

Wine 201
The Wine 101 series features a no-nonsense, just the facts approach to a wine region. In Wine 101, we stick to key facts plus a firm price cap of $20 per bottle. In Wine 201, we’ll go a little deeper and open up the budget a little, but just a little.
Chateau Pichon-Baron

Yes, Bordeaux has beautiful, expensive chateaux and expensive wines, but if you know where to look, you can find beautiful INexpensive wines! (Photo is Chateau Pichon Baron, 2nd Grand Cru Classé)

Wine 201: Bordeaux (France) Just the Facts
Bordeaux is famous, legendary, with a reputation for being super expensive and it’s true. Wine from a top chateau will cost upwards of $300 a bottle at release BUT, Bordeaux is large. At a recent count, there were over 7000 wineries.  Even if the top 1000 wineries sold super-expensive wines, there are still 6000 wineries to explore! Sure, a winery whose wine retails for $20 can’t lavish the same attention on the wine as a winery producing $500 bottles, but the $20 bottle can be very satisfying and show the heart and soul of Bordeaux.
Cut to the Chase
OK, you’re impatient and you just want the headlines.  Bordeaux wines in the $15-25 (US price) range are there for the rest of us.
  • If you like your blends to feature Cabernet Sauvignon, you want the Left Bank. Look for Cru Bourgeois on the label. Other sources of value: wines labeled Medoc and Haut-Medoc
  • If you like your wines a bit more generous and based on Merlot, you want the Right Bank. Look for wines with “Cotes de Bordeaux” on the label. Also, communities next to the big name communities. Examples include: Lalande de Pomerol, Lussac St. Emilion, St. Emilion Grand Cru. Don’t be embarrassed to admit you like Merlot! Right Bank wines are my personal preference.

(click on either photo below to see full size slide show – see the soil! Hit escape to return)

Key Concepts for Understanding the Region

  • The most famous wine region worldwide. Long history of highly sought after, expensive French wines.
  • Coolest of all the major Cabernet/Merlot growing regions worldwide
  • “Maritime Climate” = moderate climate w/ rain & humidity
  • LARGE area, ~ 7000 wineries.
  • All about the blend, best tasting wine, not about “terroir”, oak barrels = chef’s spice
  • Approximately 90% of the wines are red
  • Red grapes allowed: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petite Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec.
  • White grapes allowed: Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon
  • Region is defined by 3 rivers: Garonne, Dordogne, and Gironde estuary. Imagine you’re in a canoe, floating downstream toward the ocean.  On your left is the “left bank”
    • Left Bank – Left Bank of the Garonne river and Gironde estuary.
    • Right Bank – Right Bank of the Dordogne river and Gironde estuary.
Chateau Siaurac in Lalande de Pomerol

Some estates are more accessible with wines that normal people can afford. (Chateau Siaurac in Lalande de Pomerol)

Bordeaux Basics

  • Classifications – Based on Chateau, not the vineyard. The 1855 original classification of Bordeaux estates (Left Bank and Sauternes) was based on price. The 1855 classification has only been updated twice, and even then, it was to just add or move up one winery each time. The Right Bank St. Emilion classification is updated every 10 years unless blocked by lawsuit! As you might imagine, classification is highly sought after and doubly highly defended.
  • Left Bank – FLAT, gravel, slopes down to Gironde estuary. This area was a marshy swamp, the Bordelais hired the Dutch to come and drain it. Estates are large, often 250 acres of vineyard around the chateau. Thanks to the gravel soil, the Left Bank is warm enough to ripen Cabernet Sauvignon, usually. Bordeaux wines are blends to hedge bad weather.
  • Right Bank – Beautiful, rolling hills, historic villages. Vineyards tend to be smaller. Limestone & clay soils, cooler, not warm enough to ripen Cabernet reliably. The blends usually feature Merlot as the primary grape.

Bordeaux is large, there are lots of affordable wines. The boxes labeled north-west and south-west constitute the Left Bank. The boxes labeled north-east and east are the Right Bank. The box labeled south-east is the Entre du Mer, neither right nor left, it is the space “between the two seas” Map courtesy of

Dipping Your Toes in the Bordeaux Pool
While the top of the top are sold at prices mere mortals will never afford, there are some Grand Cru Classé wines which are within reach for a special occasion.  Or, get a group of friends together to do a tasting and split the cost.  You should be able to find a 3rd-5th growth Left Bank wine for under $100. Similarly, there are some nice Right Bank classified wines available in the $30-50 price range.  Tasting one of these wines will give you a sense of what the classified wines are all about.  Then, you can go bargain hunting. But beware, you might discover you have expensive tastes!

Left Bank Bordeaux Right Bank Bordeaux
Show Me the Money – Arms Race at the top chateaux $$$$ (prices shown are at release or current retail) Classification of 1855 – never changes

Grand Cru Classe’ (1st – 5th Growth)

Ch. Haut Brion $419

Ch. Margaux $399

Pavilion Ch. Margaux (2nd wine) $189

example: Ch. Kirwan (3rd growth) $59

Saint Emilion Classification every 10 years*


Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classe’ “A”

Ch. Petrus $1995

Ch. Cheval Blanc $599

Ch. Figeac $109

Villages ($25-50+) St. Estephe, Pauillac, St. Julien, Margaux, Pessac-Leognan, Graves

example: Ch. Fonbadet (Pauillac) $43

Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classe’

Lalande de Pomerol

example: Ch. Siaurac (Lalande de Pomerol)

Lesser Villages, Satellite Villages, mini-region ($15-25) Medoc, Haut-Medoc

Listrac, Moulis

Ch. Maison Blanche Medoc, Cru Bourgeois $20

Saint Emilion

Lussac St. Emilion

Cotes de Bordeaux, Cadillac CdB, Blaye CdB

Ch. Barbe Blaye Cotes de Bordeaux $18

Useful designation Cru Bourgeois – must be voted “in”

Applies to Medoc, Haut-Medoc, villages

 No Right Bank equivalent
Basic regional wine (<$15) Bordeaux Superieur, Bordeaux Bordeaux Superieur, Bordeaux

White Wines
Dry white wines are definitely second class citizens in Bordeaux. On the bright side, they are generally delicious and very affordable. They are made from a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon and some can age very nicely.

Dessert Wines
Sweet wines from white wine grapes on the other hand, are something special. The area around the southern Left Bank town of Sauternes as special weather conditions in the fall. The area around the Ceron river tends to have overnight and morning fog which facilitates a special kind of grape rot called botrytis (noble rot).This rot dehydrates the grapes, resulting in high sugars, special flavors and uniquely delicious dessert wines.  Sauternes wines were classified in the 1855 Left Bank classification, so you will see similar “Grand Cru Classé” on some Sauternes labels.

How to read a Bordeaux wine label

Learn a few facts and you can be an expert Bordeaux label reader! Left Bank example on the left, Right Bank example on the right.

Reading a Bordeaux Wine Label

  • Like all wines, you will see the vintage year (year the grapes were grown, not when the wine was released) and the winery name on the bottle.
  • Like many French wines, Bordeaux wines are labeled by the place, not by the grape. The place can be the community, like Margaux, or by the larger area, such as Médoc, Haut-Médoc, Côtes-de-Bordeaux.  Learning the lesser village names, and the villages right next to the big names can help you track down value.  Some Pomerol wines run over $500/bottle, while Lalande de Pomerol next door has some wines <$30.
  • Additional wording can mean something. “Grand Cru Classé” will only appear if the wine was part of the 1855 classification (not likely to see this in the affordable category). Grand Vin de Bordeaux simply means a Bordeaux wine.  “Cru Bourgeois” is a special designation organized by the Left Bank wineries of the Medoc and Haut-Medoc, and is a label designation we bargain hunters should be aware of. Wineries must submit their wines for approval to gain and retain the label status, so it serves as a vote of quality.  Unfortunately, there isn’t a Right Bank equivalent.

Plan a Bordeaux Tasting
(click on any image below to view full size slide show. Hit “escape” to return to the post)

One fun way to learn Bordeaux both fancy and bargain is to get your friends together for a wine tasting. Here’s an ideal line-up:

  • Bordeaux Blanc – usually affordable, high end Bordeaux is usuallly red, not dry white.
  • Classified Growth Left Bank Chateau – Definitely worth trying, especially if you can split the cost with friends.
  • Affordable Left Bank Cru Bourgeois – For around $20 you can find delicious red wines with Cabernet Sauvignon as the largest component in the blend. They’re delicious and ready to drink. Look for Cru Bourgeois.
  • Expensive Right Bank Chateau – Right Bank wines are a bit more generous, but they are still distinctly different from New World versions. Well worth understanding the difference between the Left and Right Bank.
  • Affordable Right Bank Chateau – Ready to drink and approachable, just look for a satellite community or a Cotes-de-Bordeaux.
  • Finish with a sweet wine – Sauternes, Loupiac, Barsac

Discover Affordable Bordeaux Wines at



6 Responses to “French Wine 201: Affordable Bordeaux”
  1. Superb description of the Bordeaux landscape and what goes on behind the scenes. And some lovely photos, to boot!

  2. Lynn says:

    The succinct 201 Bordeaux facts- you’re steering people to the go-to areas for great, price is right wine!

  3. Nice post! A lot of people are put off by Bordeaux prices, but this shows that they can get to know the region and not break the bank! 🙂

  4. pietrosd says:

    Jeff, Great piece! Salute

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