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1960s Archive

The Bordeaux Appellations

Originally Published May 1960

The Whole extraordinary business started, it would appear, about thirty years ago, in the preposterously unlikely little town of Marennes. For Marennes is not only a kind of oyster (one of the best and most expensive of all oysters), it is a low, white, dull, small seaside town in western France, with a great soaring bell tower, a slow, tidal river, the seudre, and a vast expanse of oyster beds, or “parks,” as they are called in French. There is not a vineyard within miles.

Oysters are eaten the year round in Marennes, with no concern for a missing “r” in the month's name, and it was in search of oysters, plus a bit of fresh sea air, that a group of eminent French wine experts visited Marennes one hot summer day well before the war. They had been meeting in Cognac to attempt to put some order into the vast hodgepodge of existing French wine regulations: it was purely by chance, while lunching at Marennes, that they found the key. There they learned that Marennes oysters were protected by certain special provisions of French law, could only come from a carefully defined area of oyster beds, could not be called Marcnnes if harvested elsewhere, and had to carry, when shipped, a special, easily recognizable green label, wired to the crate.

For a number of years thereafter the words Appellation Contrôlée, which now appear on almost all authentic French wine labels (Alsace and Champagne excepted), had to be printed in green; the color is no longer obligatory, but the originally specified green was in honor of that long-ago, half-forgotten, friendly déjeuner at Marennes. There should be a commemorative plaque on the restaurant's wall.

Several of those who were present (the late Sénareur Joseph Capus, the late Gaston Briand) are now citizens of a country where, let us hope, all wines are authentic and all vintages good. They have left behind them, inscribed on French wine labels, these two extraordinarily important words—Appellation Contrôlée—and the generations of wine drinkers will rise up and be thankful to them for it.

All Bordeaux wines, among others, now carry these words, and no Bordeaux wine may be exported from France in bottle without these words on its label. Some wines may be and are shipped by Bordeaux firms without these words, but such either are not Bordeaux wines, or are substandard—they are what are called “non-appellation” wines, may be blends coming from anywhere, even Algeria, Spain, or the French Midi. If they do come from the Bordeaux district, without the words Appellation Contraôlée, they are not Bordeaux wines according to French law, and one will do well to suspect them.

For an Appellation Contrôlée is a French wine name which has been officially defined and protected (like Marennes, for oysters); a wine which carries these words may be passable or good or magnificent; at least it has a right, according to French law, to the name it bears on its label.

It has not been easy, by any means, to establish and define these names on a basis fair to producers and consumers alike; there are still disputes, and revisions arc made almost annually. But the original pattern is an extremely Sound one, and the system in France tends to be more and more widely accepted and recognized.

You will find on your Bordeaux wine labels either the words Appellation Contrôle as such, or with a name inserted between them, as Appellation St. Emilion Contrôlée. The two forms are equally valid. All regional or district wines (those that take their name from a region or district or village, as Bordeaux, Médoc, Graves, Sauternes. St. Emilion, etc.) use the first of these two forms, and all chateau wines (those that take their name from a specific vineyard) use the second. A wine labeled “St. Emilion,” with the words Appellation Contrôlée in smaller type below, must come from the district of St. Emilion and conform to the standards set for wine so sold. But Chateâu Cheval Blanc and Château Ausone. the best of the great St. Emilion wines, and all other château wines from St. Emilion. will be marked Appellation St. Emilion Contrôlée, This means that the French Government guarantees only that these wines meet, or surpass, the minimum St. Emilion standards; the rest is up to the producer and to you. Obviously, the better châteaux would never market a really poor wine under their celebrated labelsȔtheir ancient and world-wide reputation is the proof; but the French Government's guarantee of authenticity goes only as far as the main wine name on the label (if followed by the words Appellation Contrôlée) or as far as the name which appears between Appellation and Contrôlée, whether this name is St. Emilion, for example, or Pauillac, or Sauternes, or just Bordeaux.

The more limiting and restrictive appellations are obviously the more valuable, and a Bordeaux wine invariably carries the most limiting appellation to which it has a right. No wine entitled to the name “Médoc” is sold simply as “Bordeaux”; a Château Lafite could legally go to market as “Bordeaux,” “Bordeaux Supérieur,” “Médoc,” “Haur Médoc,” or “Pauillac” (each being a subdivision of the preceding), but the label, of course, reads Appellation Pauillac Contrôlée. Here. to make this doubly clear, are the prices which a Bordeaux shipper quoted some months ago per barrel of 1957 wine:

  • Bordeaux
    30,000 Francs
  • Bordeaux Supérieur
    34,000 Francs
  • Médoc
    40,000 Francs
  • Haut-Médoc
    50,000 Francs
  • Pauillac
    70,000 Francs
  • Less Known château of Pauillac
    100,000 Francs
  • Château Lafite
    285,000 Francs

The precise conditions under which an Appellation Contrôlée is granted are far too technical and complex to be of much interest to the layman, covering, as they do, methods of pruning, grape varieties, production per acre, and much more. In the following pages I have tried to give the meaning of these appellations (and the list is complete) in layman's language. Here, in brief, is a small dictionary of Bordeaux wine names recognized by French law. with a few comments regarding each.


Seaport and city of 240,000 on the Garonne River in southwestern France. A few miles north of the city, the Garonne is joined by the Dordogne to form the broad estuary of the Gironde; this has given its name to the département which comprises the entire Bordeaux wine country; its 110,000 acres of vineyard produce some Bordeaux. Seaport and city of 240,000 on the Garonne River in southwestern seventy million gallons of wine a year.

Practically all of this is entitled to the name “Bordeaux,” and this appellation is a sort of catchall, or lowest common denominator. “Bordeaux Supérieur” is very little better—the wine must have slightly more alcohol (10 ½ per cent as against 9 ¾ per cent) and its maximum legal production per acre is somewhat lower. Both wines may and generally do come from inferior portions of the Bordeaux Country; if they came from the Médoc or St. Emilion or Graves or Sauternes they would be so labeled. In general, they are mass produced and blended.

The better districts in the Bordeaux Country have been defined and delimited with characteristic French precision; each one produces wine of a somewhat different character or class. Thus, north of the city, forming the left or west bank of the Gironde estuary, are the low, gravelly bills of the incomparable Médoc, producing red wines almost exclusively. and many of the greatest red wines of the world. West and south of Bordeaux is the wide district of Graves, with white wines ranging from dry to scmisweet, and many excellent reds. Along the southern edge of Graves, in turn, are the five little villages (including Barsac) which alone are entitled to the famous name Sauternes, Across the Garonne, beyond the intervening hills and the Dordogne, are the vineyards of St. Emilion and PomerolȔthis is red wine country. second only to the Médoc in quality. Lesser wine districts include Côtes de Bourg, Fronsac. Lalandc de Pomerol, Montagne-St. Emilion, Néac, etc.; white wine districts of less importance and less fame are Entre-Deux-Mers, Côtes de Blaye, Ste. Croix-du-Mont, Loupiac, Cadillac, Premières Côtes de Bordeaux, Cérons (actually part of Graves), Graves de Vayres (not part of Graves), etc.

The red wines of Bordeaux have been known as Claret in English-speaking countries ever since the three-hundred year occupation of the region by the English (1154-1453); the French term Clairet has an altogether different meaning and is used to designate a son of vin rosé. Ordinary Claret is simply a pleasant table wine, but the very best Claret is second to no other red wine in the world, fine Burgundy being its only real rival; it is made principally from the Cabernet Sauvignon grape, plus a good deal of Cabernet Franc and Merlot, often a little Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Carmenère; while lighter in alcohol than Burgundy, it is generally deeper in color and even longer-livedȔcertain Médocs of great vintages have been known to hold up, and even to improve, for fifty, sixty, and even eighty years.

White Bordeaux is a whole family of wines, some quite dry. some extremely sweet, though all made from grapes of the Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc varieties, plus an occasional minor admixture of Muscadelle. Graves, Sauternes, and Barsac are known, like Claret, the world over.

What goes to market as “Bordeaux Blanc” is a rather common wine, golden, ranging from dry CO semisweet. The superior grades have, of course, their superior, and more limiting, appellations.


World-famous triangle of land extending some fifty miles north from Bordeaux, bounded on (he west by the dunes and pine forests along the Atlantic, and on the cast by the Gironde estuary. The good vineyards overlook or are near the estuary; they cover a strip of gently rolling, gravelly hills from six to ten miles wide. This is a red-wine district exclusively, and the few whites are entitled only to the appellation “Bordeaux Supérieur,”

Wines labeled simply “Médoc” almost invariably come from the lower, sandier, less fine, northern half of the district (called the Bis-Médoc, although this is not a wine name); while never great, they are well-balanced Clarets of good quality and some breed. The Haut-Médoc wines (and this is an appellation) are of a far higher class: they are sometimes sold under this name, more often under one of the celebrated village namesȔMargaux, Moulis, St. Julien, Pauillac, St. EstèpheȔbut most often of all under the label of a château. Well over half of the great Bordeaux châteaux (Lafite, Latour, Margaux, MoutonRothschild, the three Léovilles, the two Pichon-Longuevilles, Palmer, Cos d'Estournel, etc.) come from this area, and even the lesser wines are outstanding.

To sum up Médoc is a red wine appellation well above Bordeaux or Bordeaux Supérieur in quality, less good, since less limiting, than Haut-Médoc. liven better arc the five village or township names mentioned above; best of all. the chateau vines that carry these as their Appellation Contrôlée.


One of the best sections of the Haut-Médoc, producing Clarets remarkable for their bouquet, silky texture, and great breed. The appellation now covers, in addition to the small township of Margaux proper, most of the neighboring communesȔCantenac, Soussans, Arsac, and Labarde. The finest Margaux wines of course carry a château label: Château Margaux, a grand seigneur, and its scarcely less illustrious cousins. Rausan-Ségla. Rauzan-Gassies, Brane-Cantenac. Lascombes, Palmer, etc.


Another subdivision of the Haut-Médoc, which gives hardly any great wine at all but much that is good, dependable, well-balanced, and not too expensive. The production zone comprises the township of Moulis and most of that of Listrac, plus portions of five others nearby.

St. Julien

Township in the very center and heart of the Haut-Médoc. Its wines include none of the very highest rank, bur practically no poor ones cither, and they are almost invariably the most expensive of the Bordeaux regionals. Called the perfect Claret for Claret lovers, St. Julien is a little fuller than Margaux. generally has more finesse and bouquet than St. Esléphe. matures sooner than Pauillac. Famous châteaux include Léoville-Poyferré, Batton, and Las-Cases, Beychevelle. Gruaud Larose, etc.


Celebrated little town in the Haut-Médoc, perhaps the most remarkable wine-producing township in the world. Within its communal limits are produced a number of the very greatest red wines of Prance: Château Lafite, Château Latour, Château MoutonRothschild, and many' others of almost equal reputation and class, as PillionLongueville, Pontet-Canet, Lynch-Bages, Batailley, etc. All these, of course, carry the words Appellation Pauillac Contrôlée on their labels, and not much wine is sold simply as “Pauillac.” The wines of Pauillac, in good years, are “classic” Clarets in every sense of the word; full-bodied, long-lived, with great bouquet and a special, incomparable distinction, they arc beyond praise.

St. Estèphe

Northernmost of the major wine-producing townships of the Haut-Médoc. directly adjoining Pauillac. Its best wines (Châteaux Cos d'Estournel, Calon-Ségur, Montrose, etc.) are sturdy, full-bodied, generous, and attractive; they have perhsps less finesse and breed than comparable Clarets from Margaux, St. Julien, and Pauillac. but a sort of forthright, lusty charm instead, which renders them most agreeable. There are many excellent lesser vineyards, crus bourgeois and the like, and regional wines Libeled “St. Estèphe” are generally good values, although occasionally a hit on the heavy side, and a shade common.


The word in French simply means gravel, or gravelly soil, and is used in a combined form in connection with several districts in the Bordeaux country. Alone it means a specific, defined area on the left bank of the Garonne River, largely west and south of the city of Bordeaux. Total production in a normal year is in the neighborhood of a million gallons, of which about one-quarter is red wine, the rest white. The appellation “Graves Supérieures” is restricted to white wines of better than average quality, despite the fact that the finest red Graves consistently bring higher prices than the finest white; most of these reds, however, do not carry the name Graves but arc sold under the label of a specific château. Ignored, with the single and notable exception of Chateau Haut-Brion, by those responsible for the Classification of 1855, the Graves châteaux have now been officially classified in part, though how competently is perhaps open to question.

The best red Graves come from the villages of Pessac, Léognan, and Martillac, and include Châteaux Haut-Brion, Pape-Clémént, Haut-Bailly, Chevalier, Malartie-Lagravière, Smith-Haut-Lafitte, etc. In character they arc closer to the Médocs than to the St. Emilions, Pomerols, etc.; they age well, but with rare exceptions have a little less distinction, are a little less “classic” than their Médoc compeers, and someone has quite properly said that they are like soft, as compared with glossy, prints from the same negative, less distinct and less clean.

The finest white Graves come principally from the township of Léognan, plus a few exceptions from Talence, Pessac, Martillac, Cadaujac, etc.; these are dry wines, although with a trace of moelleux, or softness, they are often better, being lighter and drier, in years rated fair or poor than in years rated great, although this is by no means true of the reds. The best are: Domaine de Chevalier, Laville-Haut-Brion, Carbonnieux, Olivier, Bouscaut, etc., but many others of less fame produce good wine, too. including several near Langon, at the extreme southern end of the Graves district. The rare white wine of Château Haut-Brion, at least in my opinion, is often too high in alcohol and hardly worthy of its celebrity.

Officially the Graves district includes three townships (Cérons, Podensac. and IIIats) which adjoin Barsac and produce rather sweet, golden wines, of excellent class but far nearer Sauternes than what one expects from a wine labeled “Graves.” These are usually marketed as Cérons.

The white Graves arc made largely from the Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon grapes, and where the former predominates the quality is better. Red Graves come from the Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, plus some Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot, etc.


Originally and properly the name of a little French village, set down in a district of vine-covered hillsides some thirty miles south of Bordeaux. The officially delimited Sauternes zone comprises five townships, Preignac, Bommes, Fargues, Barsac, and Sauternes itself, and the total annual production hardly exceeds 300,000 cases; no wine of other origin may legally be sold as Snuternes in France or in most other ccuntries, the United States being, of course, an exception.

True Sauternes (note the final s, even in the singular) is a rich, golden wine. high in alcohol (often over 14 per cent) and decidedly sweet; there is no such thing as a “Dry Sauternes” from France. The finest Sauternes are all sold under the names of specific chateaux, and are château-bottled; the leading vineyards include Château d'Yquem (a true grand seigneur, and in a class apart), then Châteaux Guiraud, Rayne-Vigneau, La Tour Blanche, Lafaurie Peyraguey and Cos Haut-Peyraguey, Rabaud, Suduiraut, Rieussec, Filhot, Coutet, Climens, etc. The grapes grown are the Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, plus a small amount of Muscadelle: these are picked late, in a series of harvestings, when they are not only ripe but overripe, and when their juice has been further concentrated by the action of a beneficent mold, the so-called “pourriture noble” botrytis cinerea. As a result. Sauternes are among the sweetest of all natural wines, and should properly be described as natural dessert wines. At their best they are quite extraordinary. velvety and almost creamy despite their strength, remarkable for their fruit, their breed, and their bouquet. The term Haut Sauternes is a trade designation, generally given to Sauternes that are particularly sweet, bur it has no official meaning, and legally any wine that can be called Sauternes may also be sold as Haut Sauternes.


The northernmost and, after Sauternes itself, the most famous of the five townships of Sauternes. It is some twenty-five miles southeast of Bordeaux, and its vineyards arc on low, rolling hills that overlook the Garonne River. All Barsacs, legally, are Sauternes, made by the same methods and from the same grape varieties. They are all rat her sweet, (hough often somewhat less sweet than other Sauternes, and with a special delicacy and fruit. Chateau Climens and Chateau Coutet are the outstanding vineyards, but there are many smaller good ones; all the best of them châteaubottle their production except in very poor vintage years.

Côtes de Bordeaux

Name given to two adjoining vineyard districts in the Bordeaux Country, both on the rather steep right bank of the Garonne River, southeast of Bordeaux itself. Correctly, the northern and more important of the two is called the Premières Côtes de Bordeaux; it produces some rather ordinary red wine, plus a great deal of good, iaitly sweet, and sometimes very sweet white wine, recalling that of the Sauternes district across the river, but with less distinction and class. Cadillac is the best known of the various village names. The southern area is called Côtes de Bordeaux-St. Macaire, and only white wines may be so labeled; most of these, too, are sweet, but a few drier ones are now being made, some of good quality.

Loupiac and St. Croix-du-Mont

are two small villages directly across the Garonne from Barsac and Sauternes. Both produce wines quite similar to Sauternes although less expensiveȔ golden, luscious, fruity, rather high in alcohol (over 13 per cent), and sweet.


Literally, Between Two-Seas. One of the major divisions of the Bordeaux Wine Country, comprising almost one-fifth of the whole Gironde département. Geographically, it consists of a triangle of rather lovely, rolling lulls between the two confluent rivers, Garonne and Dordogne, and should perhaps more logically be call Entre-DeuxFleuves. Portions of it (Côtes de Bordeaux, Loupiac, Ste. Croix-du-Mont, Graves de Vayres, and Ste. Foy-Bordeaux) are considered separate districts under French wine law; what remains produces a vast amount (not far from en million gallons a year) of rather common and inexpensive white wine. Red wines arc not entitled to the appellation, and are sold as Bordeaux or Bordeaux Supérieur.

Until quite recently. Entre-Deux-Mers wines were generally somewhat on the sweet side; faced with a declining demand. the growers made a courageous and intelligent decision, and set out to produce dry wines exclusively. They adopted the amusing slogan, “Entre deux buitres (between two oysters)ȔUniteDeux-Mers”; the quality of the wines has improved and is still improving; they arc today good values in their price class, though hardly distinguished.

Graves de Vayres

Secondary Bordeaux district, geographically part of Entre-Deux-Mers. on the left bank of the Dordogne River, not far from St. Emilion. The dry white wines arc passable, the reds less good. Some of the whites are now shipped in tall, green Alsace bottles, but they resemble neither Alsatian wines nor the truly fine wines of Graves proper.

St. Foy-Bordeaux

Another geographical subdivision of Entre-DeuxMers. quite properly considered a separate district by French wine law. Passably good, semisweet, inexpensive white wines, they arc somewhat like Monbazillac, produced nearby, although the latter is not, of course, a Bordeaux wine.

St. Emilion

Ancient and wonderfully picturesque little town, rich in ruins and medieval buildings, set on the edge of an escarpment overlooking the green Dordogne Valley, some twenty miles east of Bordeaux. It was already famous for its wines in the fourth century, and, with sixteen thousand acres of vines, its district produces more superior wine today than any other division of the Bordeaux Country. Most of the best vineyards are in the township of St. Emilion itself, but seven adjoining communes are also entitled to the appellation, and five more, plus a portion of a sixth, may add the words St. Kmilion to their own name on wine labels, as Lussac-St. Emilion, etc. The finest wines come either from the steep, chalky slopes of the escarpment itself (vim des côtes), or from the high, gravelly plateau behind (vins des graves, or Graves-St. Emilion); among the former, Châteaux Ausone, Bélair, Magdelaine. Canon, Clos Fourter, Beauséjour, La Gafflière-Naudes are perhaps the most famous, with at least thirty or forty others deserving almost equal rank; of the latter. Château Cheval Blanc is easily first, with Châteaux Figeac, Croque Michotte, Corbin, etc., not too far behind.

District wines labeled “St. Emilion” often come from the seven adjoining, less distinguished townships, but even these have a relatively high average quality—they are sturdy, warm, generous, wholly agreeable Clarets, pleasing even when young, and attractive even when not “great” they have been called “the Burgundies of the Bordeaux Country.” The great château-bottlings are, of course, of a far higher class and arc by no means inferior to the great Médocs, although their character is different.

Wines from the secondary, nearby townships have less breed, and occasionally a goût de terroir, or taste of heavy soil, but they are generally inexpensive and often good values. The six appellations involved are as follows, and they rank in this order of quality; St. Georges-St. Emilion, Montagne-St. Emilion, Lussac-St. Emilion, Puisseguin-St. Emilion, Parsac-St. Emilion, Sables-St. Emilion. A little while wine is produced, but is not entitled to any of these names.


One of the most interesting and attractive of all Oarers, produced only by some fifteen hundred acres of vineyard, mostly in a single townshipȔ the smallest of the famous districts into which the Bordeaux Country is divided, both by tradition and by French law. Some twenty miles east of Bordeaux, it adjoins St. Emilion, runs up to the edge of the little city of Libourne. and its vines grow on a high, rolling, rather gravelly plateau north of the Dordogne.

In average quality the wines sold simply as “Pomerol” are perhaps the best district wines of Bordeaux; they have a winning and generous warmth, great depth of flavor, a color of dark lustrous crimsan, and much of that peculiar velvety quality which the French call gras. They mature more quickly than the Médocs, are less subtle, shorter-lived. The best chôteau wines arc of course much finer; they include Château Pétrus (almost in a class by itself), Château Certan and Vieux Château Certan, and Châteaux La Conseillante, Trotanoy, Petit-Village, l'Evangile, Lafleur, Gazin, La Fleur Pétrus, Nénin, La Pointe, etc.


Secondary Bordeaux district, adjoining Pomerol on the north. Its wines, all red, resemble those of Pomerol but are less line. Château Bel-Air and Château de la Commanderie are considered the best vineyards.


Secondary Bordeaux district, bounded by Pomerol, Lalande-de-Pomerol, and Montagne-St. Emilion. Many good red wines, pleasant, soft, and generally not too expensive.


Small red-wine district which deserves to be better known than it is. The little town of Fronsac, from which it takes its name, is on the Dordogne River just west (downstream) from St. Emilion and Libourne, and the vineyards are on steep hills overlooking the valley. The best are in a zone entitled to the name Côtes-Canon-Fronsac, but Côtes-de-Fronsac is an appellation of only slightly lower class. Both produce extremely robust, deep-colored wines, what the French call “fleshy,” and soft, somewhat recalling the Pornerols but with less breed. They have long been popular in northern Europe and are good values. Total production amounts to some 400,000 gallons a year.


Name shared (in most instances with some suffix) by at least twenty towns and villages in France. The one of interest to wine driakers, neither the largest nor the most beautiful of the lot. has no suffix and is in the Bordeaux Country, on the Gironde estuary, directly across from the Médoc. The area of which it is the center produces some two million gallons of wine annually, a little over a third of it white wine of mediocre quality, the rest red, and much of it far from bad. Apart from the general appellation “Bordeaux Rouge” ( under which most of it is sold), it is entitled, when red, to the names “Bourg,” “Bourgeais,” and “Côtes de Bourg,” but these are rarely seen on wine labels outside France. Full-bodied, well balanced, made largely from the Cabernet grape, it is a red wine that should be better known.


Town and large wine-producing area in the Bordeaux Country, north of Bourg and opposite the Médoc, on the right bank of the Gironde estuary. Its annual production is in the neighborhood of four million gallons, about nineteenths of it white and, on the whole, of mediocre quality. The redȔfruity soft, and rather full-bodiedȔis somewhat better. The superior grades, both red and white, are entitled to the appellation “Premières Côtes de Blaye”; the commoner sorts are sold as “Blaye” or “Blayais,” or, perhaps more frequently, as just “Bordeaux Blanc” or “Bordeaux Rouge,” although not all of the whites are entitled even to this modest name.