Médoc is the perfect location for viticulture with the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Gironde bay on the other. The vineyards are located along the Gironde and the pine forest along the Atlantic coast protects vineyards from rain and sea breezes.
In total Médoc consists of 11 000 hectares, ie about one tenth of the entire Bordeaux. It is divided into six municipalities and eight appellations. In addition to the four most famous communes, Margaux, Saint-Julien, Pauillac and Saint-Estèphe, there are two additional, Moulis and Listrac. These six all have their own appellations. The chateaux in the southern half of the Médoc outside these communes get the appellation “Haut-Médoc” and the chateaux situated in the northern part gets the appellation “Médoc”, previously called “Bas-Médoc.”
The soils of the Médoc is mainly gravel and sand, but in the north there are also elements of clay. This affects the wines and helps us to distinguish for example a Margaux from a Saint-Estèphe.
Margaux is associated with light, elegant wines, in line with the beautiful Château Margaux that has given the commune its name (or is it the other way around?). They do not have as pronounced tannins, even as young.
There is a nice, light clay soil and often have a fairly large proportion of Merlot in the wine. The quality has perhaps gone a bit up and down in recent years but is starting to stabilize now.
To look out for, for example, the rejuvenated Château Rauzan-sail and Chateau Kirwan (as of vintage 1993).
Saint-Julien is small in size but a full 85% of the area is occupied by grand cru chateaux. Saint-Julien is currently the most reliable of Médocs communes in terms of quality.
Prices have of course soared for the well-known names such as Château Léoville-Barton, Château Lagrange, Château Gruaud-Larose and Château Ducru-Beaucaillou. But the 4th cru Château Saint-Pierre and Chateau Lagrange’s second-wine “Les Fiefs de Lagrange” are very affordable.
Pauillac has the biggest proportion of cabernet sauvignon of the Médoc wines. It is also here that we find the archetypical examples of the classically austere Bordeaux wine.
Here there are plenty of superstars. The three premier grand cru chateaux: Latour, Lafite-Rothschild and Mouton-Rothschild. Not far behind in price and quality you have chateaux like Lynch-Bages, Pichon Comtesse de Lalande and Pichon Baron (formerly known as Pichon Longueville Baron).
For a more modest budget look for the excellent Chateau Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Chateau Batailley, Croizet-Bages and the Rothschild estates of Château d’Armailhac and Château Clerc-Milon.
In Saint Estèphe the soil changes significantly. Here there is also is some gravel but also limestone appears in places and even clay, especially in the north. This variation means that the differences between the chateaux can be great, and those who have a lot of clay / limestone in the soil has a larger proportion of merlot in the wines.
The wines are often powerful and well-structured, often quite tannic, sometimes even hard, but not so much today as a few years ago. As the proportion of merlot increases, the wines also softens and can be drunk earlier.
Saint-Estèphe was treated a bit like an after-thought when the classification was done in 1855 and only five of the chateaux were classified. The second cru Chateau Cos d’Estournel with its spectacular facade right on the border to Pauillac is the flagship. Excellent today, too, after poor performances during many years, the Château Lafon-Rochet and Chateau Cos-Labory. Not to forget Chateau Phelan-Segur close to the river.
Most of the above mentioned chateaux are in the Médoc classification of 1855.
Are you looking for some more modestly priced wines, then it’s a good idea to instead look for the “Cru Bourgeois” chateaux that are scattered throughout the Médoc.
Cru Bourgeois has in recent years had a stormy time.
Cru Bourgeois was formerly a classification, which was introduced in the 1950s based on some quality rules. It included about 400 chateaux.
When the classification in the early 2000s was to be reviewed (a thing done regularly) a great controversy arose around the upgradings and the demotions. It resulted in the new classification being cancelled and that Cru Bourgeois was abolished as a classification.
A few years later it emerged as a privately organized “union”, called the Alliance des Crus Bourgeois. In its new form, it changes from year to year, based on some sort of “quality criteria”, who is entitled to use the name on the bottle. It is uncertain how this will evolve in the future. But today Cru Bourgeois exists but not as a classification.
But many of the chateaux in this somewhat diffuse group are very interesting: good quality and moderate price. Some have become so well-known that they command more or less the same prices as a third cru, for example Château Haut-Marbuzet in Saint-Estèphe and Chateau Chasse-Spleen in Moulis.
Of the others, here are some recommendations. There are many more!
- Château La Tour de By
- Château Rollan de By
- Château Les Ormes-Sorbet
- Château Potensac
- Château Vieux Robin
- Château Maucaillou
- Château Fourcas-Dupré
- Château Fourcas-hosten
- Château Labegorce-Zédé
- Château Monbrison
- Château Siran
- Château d’Angludet
- Château Gloria
- Château Glana
- Château Lalande-Borie
- Château Pibran
- Château Fonbadet
- Château Lilian-Ladouys
- Château Les Ormes de Pez
- Château Meyney
- Chateau Phelan-Segur
- Château Tour de Pez
In the northern Graves the same gravel soil as in the Médoc continues. But there is often a greater proportion of merlot and cabernet franc which makes the wines slightly more aromatic. I feel often a stronger hint of tobacco and earthy autumn leaves when I drink a Graves compared to when I drink a Médoc.
Since the second half of the 80s (1987 to be exact) northern Graves has its own appellation, Pessac-Léognan, where all the best and most famous Graves chateaux are found.
The prices here are inevitably high but I recommend Château Carbonnieux, Château La Louvière and Château Olivier. Cheaper and very good value are Château Cruzeau, Chateau Rochemorin and Chateau de France.
The price level is lower in the southern Graves appellation named simply “AC Graves”. Look for chateaux like Château d’Ardennes, Château Respide Médeville, Chateau Chantegrive, Château Rahoul and Chateau Le Bonnat.
All these Pessac-Léognan and Graves chateaux also make excellent white wines.
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