Bordeaux by the numbers

By Lou Phillips · 


A 1982 Chateau Patache d’Aux from Cru Bourgeois · 

One region in France has been considered the crown jewel of the wine world for centuries. Two river banks, the left (west) bank is ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon, and the right (east) bank is ideal for Merlot.

Two also is the number of varietals in almost every wine in Bordeaux. Rarely is there a 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot.

Three rivers because Bordeaux has a cool climate, and without the warming effects of these rivers there would be many vintages where it would be impossible to attain grape ripeness. Those nooks and crannies also create the foggy, humid conditions necessary for Botrytis Cinerea – the Noble Rot infecting white Bordeaux that is necessary for the great sweet wines of Sauternes.

The truth is that Merlot at 62 percent, Cabernet Sauvignon at 25 percent and Cabernet Franc at 12 percent make 99 percent. And, white Bordeaux, whether sweet or dry, are made almost exclusively from Sauvignon Blanc and Semillion. But, 95 percent of Bordeaux wine is red.

In 1855 the first, great classification system was established. That year, the World Exposition in Paris was seen as a great opportunity for the Bordelaise to promote its wines. Sales and quality rating documents were studied, and palms were greased, and voila, 66 Chateau in five levels (growths) achieved Grand Cru Classe, GCC.

Five is the number of quality levels. Cru Bourgeois is the level just below GCC. These producers have to qualify for this ranking every year (the 66 originals have been grandfathered since 1855), and are far more affordable than the GCCs. Levels below are: sub-region such as Haut Medoc, Graves, St. Emilion, etc.; Bordeaux Superieur; and Bordeaux. These terms are on the label.

The years of 1899, 1945, 1961, 1982, 2000 and 2005 are great vintages of Bordeaux. This is important because a high-level wine from these vintages can cost three to 10 times as much as the previous or following one, and it demonstrates how variable the climate is in Bordeaux. With climate warming and modern winemaking, this variability is becoming less profound. The more a quality, red Bordeaux ages, the more interesting and enjoyable it becomes. The average price for a bottle of 1961 Chateau Petrus is $7,000 (stated for gratuitous shock value).

And, any owners of ’61 Petrus should call me immediately, as mouth-to-glass is clearly in order.


Lou Phillips is a Level 3 (advanced) Sommelier and wine educator specializing in advising private collectors and businesses. He may be reached at (775) 544-3435 or [email protected]