Bordeaux remains the world’s most popular wine for many reasons, starting with the unique taste, character and style found in Bordeaux wine. There are many reasons why Bordeaux remains popular, but it all starts with the taste of Bordeaux wine.
What does Bordeaux wine taste like?
Keep in mind, close to 7,500 different producers make almost 10,000 different Bordeaux wines, so there is no simple explanation as to the taste of Bordeaux wine. However, the taste of Bordeaux wine can be broken down to young Bordeaux wine, older Bordeaux wine, Bordeaux blends dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux blends dominated by Merlot, dry white Bordeaux wine and sweet, Bordeaux wine. For tips on becoming a better wine taster: Discovering how to taste Bordeaux wine
The Bordeaux region is massive with more than 120,000 hectares of vines divided into 60 different appellations. For the purpose of this article on the taste of Bordeaux wine, we are going to look at red Bordeaux wine from The Left Bank, where Cabernet Sauvignon is the key grape, red Bordeaux wine from The Right Bank, where Merlot is the most important component, Pessac Leognon, which is the home of the best dry white Bordeaux wines as well as several of the best red wines in the world and Sauternes, which produces what many connoisseurs claim is the best sweet, white wines in the world. To help you understand the aromas that are correct for the grape varietal characteristics and the appellation the wines are produced in, please see our page on the Davis Wine Aroma Wheel To assist you in becoming a better wine taster, often knowing the right words to express what you’re finding in the glass is all you need. Being at a loss for words is something every wine taster knows all too well. To help you come up with the words and terms you feel comfortable with, which will allow you to discuss the wines that interest you, this is a very helpful link for everything you need to know about wine speak: ABC of Wine, A Glossary of Important Wine Terms
Red Bordeaux wine from the Medoc is probably what most people think of, when talking about the taste of Bordeaux wine. All Bordeaux wine from the Medoc and Pessac Leognan are blends. Most of those blends utilize Cabernet Sauvignon for the majority of the blend, followed by Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec. On occasion, you occasionally find very small amounts of Carmenere in the blend as well. In their youth, Bordeaux wines are often deep in color, ranging from dark ruby to almost black. The taste of Bordeaux wine from the Left Bank delivers fruit scents and flavors of cassis, blackberry, dark cherry, vanilla, black cherry, coffee bean, spice and licorice. The wines are often concentrated, powerful, firm and tannic. Depending on the specific wine, it can appear to be austere in character in its youth.
An easy way to look at wine is, the components consist of fruit, acids, tannins and sugar. When you think of a balanced wine, the term balance refers to the balance between those three elements, acid fruit, sweetness and tannins. Today, the trend is to pick riper fruit in Bordeaux because the chateaux are looking to create wines that feel soft, silky and elegant, when possible.
You often read about wines being tannic. Tannin is present in all wines. For some consumers not used to the taste of young Bordeaux wine, the tannins can feel dry in the mouth or cause a puckering sensation. The comments you often hear are, that the wines are too tannic. That is not necessarily correct. It is not only the amount of tannin present in the wine that count, it is the degree of ripeness found in the tannins that effect the tasting experience. Ripe tannins will not feel dry, tough or hard. They will feel silky and elegant on your palate. Tannins are complex polymers that join with other molecules.
Tannins or tannic acid add structure and backbone to the wine. This allows the wines to age and develop additional layers of complexity. Tannins enter into the wine from the seeds, skins and if used, the stems of the grapes. The tannins from the seeds, stems and skins are each different. Tannins from skin are the softest, followed, by the seeds and stems, which are the harshest. The reason growers search for phenolically ripe fruit is in the hope they can derive ripe tannins from the skins, seeds and from time to time the stems. Ripe tannins are smoother, silkier and do not necessarily the feeling of dryness or mouth puckering. The dry sensation is caused when the tannins latch on to the proteins found in your saliva, reducing the amount of lubrication normally present in your mouth. Wine also derives tannin from the oak barrels the wine is aged in. If you want to experience unripe tannins to help you understand how they impact your palate, make a cup of strong, black tea and allow it to steep for an extremely long time. The tannins will feel unpleasant and dry. On the other hand, ripe, tannins will feel elegant, smooth and silky, perhaps coupled with only a minor drying sensation.
Tannin management is paramount in wine making today. If the vintage allows for phenolic maturity, you have a very happy wine maker. As that is usually not the case, the wine maker has various tool at their disposal during the extraction process to determine the level and style of tannins in the wine. The length of time during the cold maceration process, the temperature of the fermentation process, the choice of punch downs or pump overs, microxygenation, the process of injecting oxygen into the wine for its softening effect, the type of aging vessel and length of aging time and of course, sorting and selection.
The taste of Bordeaux wine also takes acidity into consideration. Acidity is more noticeable in the taste of Bordeaux wine dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon. This is due to the levels of ripeness found in the fruit. Cabernet Sauvignon is naturally more acidic, lower in pH and has less sugar than Merlot. Acidity in a wine is paramount. Acidity makes the wine feel fresh, refreshing and alive on your palate. Too much acidity and the wine will feel sharp, tangy and will often taste more of tart red fruits, than darker berries.
Without alcohol, you are drinking fruit juice. Alcohol is created during the fermentation process when the grape sugars and yeast are fermenting. The level of alcohol is determined by the degree of sugar present that needs to be fermented, until the wine is dry, meaning the fermentation process is completed. However, there is always going to be some sugar remaining. The degree of sugar retained is determined by the wine maker and the natural fermentation process. For red wines, on average, they contain between 1 gram per liter and 2 grams per liter of residual sugar.
In Bordeaux, alcohol levels vary depending on the vintage and grape variety. Cool years will produce wines with lower alcohol levels. Hot vintages will create wines with higher degrees of alcohol. Cabernet Sauvignon dominated wines from the Left Bank will be lower in alcohol than the Merlot dominated wines of Pomerol and St. Emilion.
The taste of Bordeaux from the Left Bank changes as the wine matures in the bottle. With time, the initial primary fruit driven scents and flavors fade and are replaced by secondary or tertiary flavors and aromas. These secondary aromas, also known as the bouquet offer intriguing notes of tobacco leaf, truffle, cigar box, smoke, tar, leather, spices, wet earth, forest floor or leafy aromas. With more time, the darker fruits you initially sensed morph into dark cherry flavors. The texture of the wine as it ages changes as well. The initial tannic, or stern character softens. Mature Bordeaux wine becomes more elegant, silky and at its best, can feel like velvet on your palate.
Even though Bordeaux wines are produced to be enjoyed earlier in life these days, all the top Left Bank wines are better as they age. The amount of time required to age each wine varies from estate to estate and from vintage to vintage. In a lighter, early drinking year, the wines can be enjoyed on release or with only a few years in the bottle. However, the top wines of the Left Bank in the best vintages are often much better with 10 to 20 years in the bottle. Or in the case of the First Growths, depending on the character of the vintage, perhaps it could take 30 or more years of bottle age for the wines to reach maturity. This is not to say that you need to age all Bordeaux wines for that long. You might even prefer the taste of Bordeaux when the wines are in their youth. Many people do. But with time and experience in tasting older wines, a lot of consumers develop an appreciation for the taste of mature Bordeaux wine after the secondary characteristics are truly developed.
The taste of Bordeaux wine from The Right Bank is different, due to the Merlot grape. Merlot is the most important grape in the Right Bank, followed by Cabernet Franc. When young, the taste of Bordeaux wine from The Right Bank delivers licorice, chocolate, black cherry, plum, blackberry, spice, vanilla, smoke, floral, blueberry and jam flavors, characteristics and sensations. Merlot dominated wines are lower in acidity than Cabernet Sauvignon. That means the wines are going to feel richer, softer, plusher and rounder. These wines can be incredibly silky. and in the best Bordeaux wines from the Right Bank, the textures and feelings in your mouth range from opulence to decadence.
The taste of Bordeaux wine from Pomerol and Saint Emilion changes with time, as does the texture. With maturity, the wines evolve in a positive fashion with additional levels of complexity coming into the tasting experience. The wines develop enhanced aromas of truffle, spice and flowers, along with fresh herbs. Some wines develop hints of tobacco, mint and earthy, forest characteristics. The textures, even though they were soft in their youth, develop silky, velvety textures in your mouth. The wines from Pomerol and Saint Emilion are among the world’s most hedonistic wines because of their sensuous textures and mouth feeling.
Aging Bordeaux wine is a matter of personal taste. Due to the fleshy, softer tasting Merlot grape, most Right Bank Bordeaux wines are enjoyable in its youth. However, the best Right Bank wines are clearly more complex with bottle age. How much time each wine needs to age depends on the producer, the vintage and the taster. Keep in mind, there is more to Right Bank Bordeaux wine than Pomerol and Saint Emilion. One of the great things about Bordeaux is the numerous, smaller, satellite appellations located throughout the region. The smaller satellite appellations located adjacent to St. Emilion and Pomerol are also dominated by Merlot in their blends and the vast majority of those smaller wines provide pleasure in their youth.
The taste of dry white Bordeaux wine delivers a cornucopia of flavors and characteristics that include fresh lemon, citrus rind, flowers, spice, honey, orange, lime, grapefruit, butter and vanilla. You can also find elements of herbs, lemon wax and fresh cut grass. White Bordeaux wines at their best are rich, deep, concentrated and powerful. They can be fresh, display minerality and are often quite refreshing. When white Bordeaux wines age, they develop more complicated scents of honey, flowers, citrus, spice and stone characteristics. While dry white Bordeaux wine is produced in several appellations, the top dry, white Bordeaux wine comes from Pessac Leognan. The grapes most often used for the production of white Bordeaux wine are Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Sauvignon Gris.
The taste of sweet, white Bordeaux is pure nectar to fans of this style of wine. Produced from grapes attacked by Noble Rot also known as Botrytis, these fascinating wines begin life with a potpourri of flavors and smells dominated by ripe and over ripe tropical fruits, pineapple, peach, nectarine, apricot, lemon and oranges drenched in honey. Accompanying those initial fruit sensations you find grilled nuts, vanilla, spice and scents of fresh cut flowers. At their best, Sauternes and Barsac wines are rich, sensuous, sweet and braced by acidity. The acidity allow the wines to feel fresh, honeyed and intense. The texture of sweet, Bordeaux wine is plush, round and opulent. At their best, they are rich, deep, full bodied, sweet, intense and complex.
Out of all the wines of Bordeaux, Sauternes enjoys the widest drinking window. The wines are delicious when young with their intoxicating blend of sweet tropical fruits, honey and refreshing acidity in their profile. As they age, sweet Bordeaux wine becomes darker in hue, turning from golden yellow to orange, copper and even caramel in color. In their youth, the wines are more focused on ripe yellow fruits, apricots and honey. With time in the bottle, the wines shed their initial tropical fruit flavors and begin to add scents of caramel, butterscotch, honey, spice and nut characteristics and even chocolate. The textures are often lusch and viscous. In the best vintages of Chateau d’Yquem, which is unanimously recognized by wine lovers all the world as the best wine from Sauternes, with time, notes of chocolate covered oranges, cocoa and creme brulee emerge. Depending on the chateaux and the vintage, Sauternes can age for decades. In the case of Chateau d’Yquem, the top vintages can evolve for more than 100 years! Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle are the grapes used in the production of sweet, Bordeaux wine.