As a basic concept, a Bordeaux wine is any wine made within the defined region of Bordeaux, a geographical but not a political entity in the Gironde départment in southwest France. Within Bordeaux, however, there are 57 separate appellations, that is, official growing and winemaking areas defined by the INAO, the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine, established in 1935 and taxed with regulating (in great detail) some 470 wines and spirits as well as other agricultural products. The fact that a region like Bordeaux consists of 57 appellations might seem difficult enough to encompass, though the system is further complicated by the existence of different rules within appellations — white wine made in Margaux, for example, cannot be designated as Margaux AOC — and by certain limited choices of designation that producers can make.

Bordeaux, in its most celebrated guise, is home to some of the world’s greatest wine estates, well-nigh legendary properties that annually release to the waiting arms and open pocketbooks of connoisseurs, collectors and high-end restaurants wines of finesse, breeding, power and longevity. These wines, famous indeed but only about five percent of the region’s total production, tend to originate in the appellations of Graves, Pessac-Léognan, Margaux, Pauillac, St.-Estephe, St.-Julien, Pomerol and St.-Emilion, all for red wine, and Sauternes and Barsac for dessert wines. Most of these appellations are communal, meaning that they are named for old towns and villages around which the vineyards and chateaux cluster.

In the regional sense, however — and let’s not forget that Bordeaux is also a city on the Garonne river that has been a center of wine-trading for eight centuries — in the narrowly (or formally) determined sense, the word “Bordeaux” officially applies to seven of the 57 appellations according to the A.O.C (Appellation d’Origine Côntrolée) regulations: Bordeaux Red; Bordeaux Supérieur Red; Bordeaux White; Bordeaux Supérieur White; Bordeaux Rosé; Bordeaux Clairet; and Crémant de Bordeaux — yes, small amounts of champagne method sparkling wine are produced in Bordeaux, and its quite tasty, if generally simple and direct. These seven appellations and their growers are represented by the Syndicat Viticole des AOC Bordeaux et Bordeaux Supérieur from its headquarters at Planete Bordeaux in Beychac et Caillau, just south of the Dordogne river in Entre-Deux-Mers.

The vineyards that supply the grapes for the seven “Bordeaux” appellations account for 54 percent of Bordeaux’s vineyard area, some 61,000 hectares, or about 156,770 acres. These vineyards are farmed by 6,085 growers, many of whom make, bottle and market their own wines, though the majority sell either grapes or wine to cooperatives, of which there are 44. The average holding for each grower is just under 26 acres; these are not large landowners, and they do not sell their wines for hefty prices. Obviously we are talking about a realm far removed from the heady preserves of the Classified Growths and grand chateaux nestled in their parks and illustrious, historic vineyards from which spring the hallowed, long-lived wines — Lafite-Rothschild, Latour, Margaux, Haut-Brion, Mouton-Rothschild, Petrus, Ausone, Cheval Blanc and so forth — that command tremendous feats of fiduciary prowess on the part of American CEOs and Asian magnates. No, I am writing here of smaller, more intimate chateaux, glorified farmhouses really, surrounded by a few hectares of vines often tended by the same families for generations, even back to the 18th Century. (Let me add that there are many beautiful old estates and chateaux in all regions and appellations of Bordeaux.)

Like the tremendous gulf that yawns between the salaries of business leaders and wage-earners in America, the untenable gap between the prices fetched for the top five percent of Bordeaux wines and the rest of the vast sea of wine produced in the region is economically insupportable. And where are these small landowners going to sell their products now that the French consume less wine than at any point since records began being kept yet more wine — a glut of wine — is being made? (Answer: The United States of America and the People’s Republic of China.)

Anyway, the differences between Bordeaux AOC and Bordeaux Supérieur AOC are matters of degrees. Bordeaux Supérieur red wine is supposed to be made from older vines (though the age is unspecified in the regulations) and aged for 12 months; it must finish with a minimum of 10.5 percent alcohol, as opposed to the minimum of 10 percent for “regular” Bordeaux, though the reality is that almost all the wines produced from both appellations vary from about 11.5 to 13.5 percent. The “Supérieur” designation does not mean that the wine is inherently “better” or “superior” to a wine that carries a plainer “Bordeaux” designation; the implication, however, is that because the rules are slightly more demanding, the possibility exists that a Bordeaux Supérieur wine would display more character and be capable of aging for four or five years.

One may think of Bordeaux, then, as a structure of concentric circles, with Bordeaux AOC and Bordeaux Supérieur AOC, which may be made anywhere in the overall Bordeaux region, as the outer circles, while the rest of the (theoretical) circles become smaller and smaller, until finally we come to the communal appellations and their Classified Growths. Bordeaux Rosé AOC, Clairet and Crémant can also be made anywhere in the Bordeaux region, but you can bet that such production is limited to the broad AOCs; the winemakers at Classified Growths have better things to do with their expensive pedigreed grapes than knock out a few cases of rosé. There’s always the possibility that an estate could take advantage of the allowance to declassify a wine to Bordeaux AOC in an irregular year, though that decision has to be reached before the wine is made, not after; Bordeaux AOC and Bordeaux Supérieur AOC are not to be used as dumping appellations for inferior or mediocre wines.

Thanks to Jana Kravitz of Vin’Animus for clearing up some points of confusion; if there’s anything confusing in this account, it’s my fault. Image of the old port of Bordeaux from darvillsrareprint.com.