The Bordeaux wine region is undeniably defined by its tidal rivers. But to determine vineyards with some of the prettiest water views, and estates that produce the best value wines, it’s wise to start at the source.
Beginning in the snowy Pyrenees mountains around 5,500 feet above sea level, the Garonne river flows about 325 miles north and west, and passes the Cité du Vin dockside at Bordeaux city.
Meanwhile, in central France, the Dordogne river crashes down more than 5,400 feet from the Massif Central. It flows west for 300 miles, meandering past the Saint-Émilion plain and skirting vines to the north of Bordeaux on its journey.
These two great rivers merge just beyond the city of Bordeaux to form the majestic Gironde estuary, the largest of its kind in Western Europe. From there, it’s a seriously tidal and cruise-ship worthy 45 or so miles to the Bay of Biscay and the Atlantic Ocean.
But to the north and east, Bordeaux Côtes vineyards climb around 400 feet from the three waterways. Planted on limestone and clay soils, they benefit from the warmth of these waters and their sunny exposures.
The sixth, Bourg, voted to stay apart. Together, however, they represent a new level of quality definitely worth exploring.
Wines from these Bordeaux Côtes appellations represent some of the best values and most enjoyable selections in Bordeaux. Mainly red, they are ready to be enjoyed within three years after release, and many can hold for up to a decade.
They are pleasurable pours, always with ample structure. Yet, they’re also full of fruit from Merlot, blended with the more tannic Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Increasingly, spicy Malbec has become a common part of the regional blends as well.
Ready to dive in? Here’s your cheat sheet to the best that Bordeaux’s Côtes have to offer.
Fortified and Ready
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Citadel of Blaye is one of three massive forts designed in the 17th century to repel invaders who might sail upriver and attack Bordeaux. The others are Fort Médoc, which sits on the opposite side of the Gironde estuary in Cussac-Fort-Médoc, and Fort Paté, located on an island in the Gironde estuary.
Today, the Citadel of Blaye, with houses, shops and restaurants within its walls, still dominates this river town.
Beyond this bustling tourist destination, growing along the estuary’s slopes, across plains and atop a plateau, are the vineyards of Blaye Côtes de Bordeaux, a calm region where vines are interspersed with fields and grain crops. They’re planted mainly to red varieties, covering more than 12,800 acres, though about 680 acres of white grapes are also grown.
Fifteen years ago, the region’s reds were generally light and easy drinking. Now, thanks to an increased proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon used in the final blends, the style has deepened. It offers ripeness as well as structure and emphasizes black-fruit characteristics.
The whites, too, have become richer, with many more now aged in wood.
Eric Bantegnies’s family runs four chateaus in Blaye: Bertinerie, Haut Bertinerie, Manon des Brumes and La Baronnerie. He emphasizes the newfound importance of Cabernet Sauvignon to the region’s reputation.
“It makes a big difference to the structure of the wines,” says Bantegnies. “We have always had a majority of Merlot, but now we aim to have up to 40% Cabernet in the blend, particularly for our top wines.”
The Bantegnies family vineyards are in Cubnezais and Cézac, near Saint-Savin, at the eastern end of the appellation. It’s in one of three sections of the Blaye vineyard landscape. The others sections are around Blaye itself, and Saint-Ciers-sur-Gironde and Marcillac to the north, where the impressive Vignerons de Tutiac cooperative is headquartered and the last Bordeaux vineyards lie before you cross into the Cognac region.
This is a wine region with both history and potential. Most wines are widely available at prices around $15 to $20, although some top wines sell for more than $50. At their best, they burst with plum and blackberry fruits, are lightly wooded and ready to enjoy within three years of release.
Vignobles Gabriel and Co. 2016 Château Le Grand Moulin (Blaye Côtes de Bordeaux); $24, 92 points. Though he’d rather be a musical genius, Jean-François Reaud did wonders with this estate, in the family since 1904. Dense and full of tannins, it also offers ripe fruits. Its structure and density match the intensity of the fruit, meaning the wine has a great future. With a dense aftertaste, the wine will age, so drink from 2022. Mr. Wine. Editors’ Choice.
Château Magdeleine Bouhou 2016 Boha (Blaye Côtes de Bordeaux); $18, 90 points. This dark, structured wine with firm tannins has the potential for richness. That comes from the blackberry flavors that pop through the dry structure. The fruit hints at juiciness and shows bright acidity. Drink this ageworthy wine from 2022. Sierra Nevada Imports. Editors’ Choice.
Château Monconseil-Gazin 2016 Blaye Côtes de Bordeaux; $30, 90 points. This wine from Jean-François Baudet is rich with fine tannins and ripe black fruits. Its structure and concentration are generous, while with 12 months in oak, the smoky black-currant fruit still gives freshness. The wine is now well integrated and will be ready from 2021. Continent Wines Inc.
Dynamism and Optimism
Surrounded by rolling hills with great views of the Dordogne river just before it joins the Garonne to form the Gironde estuary, it’s no surprise that the vineyards in the Côtes de Bourg are dubbed “Little Switzerland” by locals.
At around 280 feet above sea level at their peak, however, these slopes are hardly Swiss, but their proximity to the water allows the vineyards to take advantage of the extra warmth that it provides.
They form a compact region about 22 miles north of Bordeaux that’s defined by steep drops down toward the river, valleys and small patches of woodland.
The majority of the production is focused on red wine. There are more than 9,700 acres devoted to red-grape vines compared to less than 100 acres of white varieties.
Bourg’s wines are not shy, with rich fruit tones, bold tannins and moderate alcohol levels typically around 14%.
There’s a sense of dynamism and cohesion throughout the region, best witnessed by the Maison du Vin. Paid for by the growers, it’s an excellent shop and conference center with a splendid wine bar and a planned restaurant with river views. It’s close to the ancient Bourg citadel, whose terrace, about 100 feet up from the river, forms a tree-shaded square where gossip reigns on sunny afternoons.
“We have a really good group of younger growers who have taken over from their parents, more than many other areas of Bordeaux—they travel together, they taste together,” says Stéphane Donze, president of the wine growers association of Côtes de Bourg and co-owner of Château Martinat along with his wife, Lucie.
Then there’s Malbec. Long forgotten in Bordeaux, climate change as well as Argentine and native clonal selection have made it possible to replant the variety here and in neighboring Blaye. Malbec now makes up about 10% of Bourg’s vineyards, and it’s changed both the regional landscape and resulting wine profiles.
“It brings spice to our wines,” says Donze.
Château Brulesécaille 2016 Grande Réserve (Côtes de Bourg); $20, 91 points. The wine has fine fruitiness and warm tannins that give it a juicy character. With its structure still in place, it will need some time. As it develops, it will become a dense, fruity and rich wine. Drink from 2021. Kysela Père et Fils.
Château Mercier 2016 Cuvée Prestige (Côtes de Bourg); $22, 91 points. The structure of Isabelle & Christophe Chety’s wine is still firm and young. The same goes for the full-bodied, black-currant fruits that are nowhere near ready to enjoy. Drink from 2021. Republic National Distributing Co.
Château Tayac 2016 Prestige (Côtes de Bourg); $28, 91 points. Full of new wood aromas and flavors, this is a tough blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot at this stage. Its firm texture and dry core are balanced by the juicy acidity and the fine black currant fruitiness. The wine’s licorice flavors from extraction should go as it develops. Drink from 2022. Direct Wine Inc.
Wines and Cars
Cadillac is a true slope, a true côte. Alongside the Garonne river, the thin appellation runs 37 miles southeast, starting on the outskirts of Bordeaux.
The vineyards, around 2,700 acres in total, form a narrow strip, never more than three miles wide. They climb steep south-facing slopes and look across the Garonne to Sauternes, the Graves and the dense pine forests of the Landes.
It’s this proximity to the Garonne that defines Cadillac. The extra warmth from the river brings density to the red wines and also creates ideal conditions for botrytis to infect white grapes, a key element in the production of the unctuous, sweet wines of Cadillac.
In the village of Capian, Monique Bonnet is the owner of Château Suau. At 328 feet in elevation, it’s one of the highest vineyards in the appellation.
“I could see the Garonne if the oak trees weren’t there,” says Bonnet. The close proximity to the river, she says, “gives our red wines the extra depth and concentration, [with] structure, accessibility and ageability.”
Cadillac, the walled town on the banks of the Garonne, is situated deferentially around a massive castle built in the 17th century by a duke of Épernon. One of the subsequent lords of Cadillac, the
Chevalier Antoine Laumet de La Mothe Cadillac, was governor of Louisiana in the 18th century when it was still French territory.
The story goes that his name was attached to the iconic car brand 150 years later. The locals are proud of the connection, as evidenced by the annual rally held with vintage Cadillacs.
There is also a second red wine appellation within the Cadillac Côtes de Bordeaux region, called just Côtes de Bordeaux. The wines are simpler than the Cadillac offerings, typically from high-yield vineyards and aged in tanks rather than wood.
Many estates make both styles, although the superior Cadillac Côtes de Bordeaux are more likely to be seen in the U.S.
Over the years, the wines of Cadillac have shown reliability, as a number of major estates has earned 90-plus scores. Like all the wines from the Côtes, most bottlings represent amazing values at reasonable prices, often around $20 for the impressive 2016 vintage.
Château de Marsan 2016 Cadillac Côtes de Bordeaux; $18, 91 points. Rich, smoky and with ripe fruits, this is a powerful wine from vines bordering the Garonne river. Its tannins, swathes of blackberry and black-plum flavors and concentration all point to the need for aging. Drink from 2022. Wineberry America LLC. Cellar Selection.
Château Reynon 2016 Cadillac Côtes de Bordeaux; $14, 91 points. Harvested under the direction of the Dubourdieu sons, this smoky wine is ripe, full of rich juicy fruit as well as firm tannins. A layer of strong black fruits is balanced by acidity. This rich, deliciously fruity wine has a fine future. Drink from 2022. AP Wine Imports. Best Buy.
Château Tanesse 2016 Cadillac Côtes de Bordeaux; $45, 90 points. This smoky, ripe and structured Gonfrier wine shows good potential, offering fine tannins and rich black fruits. Its structure, concentration and balance already show a wine that will have an excellent future. Drink from 2021. Serge Doré Selections.
The Saint-Émilion Effect
Castillon has a place in history. Its full name is Castillon-la-Bataille, which means “Castillon the Battle.” In 1453, this is where the French threw the English out of the country after the Hundred Years War. Each year, citizens celebrate the victory with a spectacular pageant in the vineyards.
Castillon is also next to Saint-Émilion. Apart from an administrative boundary, this is the same slope with the same soil and exposure as its more famous neighbor. In fact, many Saint-Émilion chateau owners have bought the much less expensive vineyard land throughout the area. Plots here cost an average of $11,000 per acre, compared to $114,000 in Saint-Émilion.
Some of these chateau owners are quite pedigreed. The Bécot family of Château Beauséjour-Bécot produces Château Joanin-Bécot; the Perse family of Château Pavie produces Clos les Lunelles; and the von Neipperg family of Château Canon la Gaffelière owns Château d’Aiguilhe. These producers make some of the best Castillon wines.
As a result, the appellation has become the go-to for many who can’t afford Saint-Émilion.
“Castillon is good quality without the price,” says Jonathan Ducourt, whose family owns Château des Demoiselles in Castillon and Château Jacques Noir in Saint-Émilion. He describes his wine as “bright fruits with a good density, a little bit of spice and a touch of tannin.”
From Castillon and the Dordogne Valley, vines rise up the steep south-facing slope to the plateau above, at heights between 250 and 350 feet. Small villages—Saint-Magne, Sainte-Colombe, Saint Genès-de-Castillon, Belves-de-Castillon—form enclaves in the landscape of around 7,000 acres of vines, leaving patches of land in the small valleys for woodland, with small vineyard holding and major estates alike.
Castillon has risen fast, as producers snap up inexpensive land and invest in winemaking. Prices range from as little as $12 to $50, with plenty of 90-point wines to be found, especially from the 2015 and ’16 vintages currently on the market.
Château d’Aiguilhe 2016 Seigneurs d’Aiguilhe (Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux); $20, 91 points. Part of the von Neipperg holdings, this ripe, perfumed wine is rich with tannins and and spice. Black fruits and acidity balance all this firmness to give a wine with delicious potential. Drink this generous blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc from 2021. K&L Wine Merchants. Editors’ Choice.
Château de Pitray 2016 Premier Vin (Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux); $15, 91 points. A concentrated wine from the Pitray family, who fought in the American Revolution, this has bold tannins and the potential for rich fruit. A powerful wine, it shows plenty of spice as well as ripe black-currant flavors and acidity. Drink from 2022. Monsieur Touton Selection Ltd. Best Buy.
Château Côte Montpezat 2016 Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux; $20, 90 points. Big tannins don’t hide the fruitiness of this ripe Merlot-dominated wine. It has concentration, and a dark core of powerful tannins that brings out an accent of coffee. At the same time, a rich blackberry flavor shines through. Drink from 2022. Saranty Imports.
Francs and Sainte-Foy
The Eastern Hills
As Blaye is at the northwestern border of Bordeaux, so Francs and Sainte-Foy are at the eastern boundary. They are the smallest of the Côtes de Bordeaux vineyards, with Francs planted to about 1,000 acres of vines and Sainte-Foy at around 860 acres. Still, both have great history.
Francs dates to at least the sixth century, when the region received its name from an army of Franks who won a battle at a place called Ad Francos, later changed to Francs. The little river, the Lidoire, which flows into the Dordogne, acted as the early World War II border between German-occupied Bordeaux and Free France.
Sainte-Foy’s vines can be traced back to the 13th century. The founding of the town of Sainte-Foy-la-Grande in 1255 led to the growth of local vineyards. Early accounts note the town’s duty was to hinder wines of the Haut-Pays from reaching Bordeaux before local vignerons had sold and shipped their own crop each harvest.
Francs, which produces red, white and sweet white wines under the Francs Côtes de Bordeaux appellation, has a number of major estates. With vineyards that climb up to 400 feet in elevation, it’s the highest point in Bordeaux, with sites that sprawl from north of Castillon down into the Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux region.
It’s the only slope without a view over a major river. Only a handful of estates have wines available in the U.S., but their value and quality are worthy of seeking out. Expect serious reds for long term aging, especially from chateaus owned by the Thienpont family, which owns and runs vineyards in Saint-Émilion and Pomerol.
Sainte-Foy’s average vineyard size is 22 just acres. The vineyards climb from the Dordogne up to around 325 feet and look over the medieval town of Sainte-Foy-la-Grande, with its grid plan and wooden houses. They’re on slopes that face north and northwest, and they benefit from the warming influence of the river. In terms of quality, the area is still some way behind the rest of the Côtes, and therefore there are hardly any wines on American shores.
Les Charmes Godard 2016 Château La Prade (Francs Côtes de Bordeaux); $14, 91 points. Bold tannins and ripe fruit are the hallmarks of this rich wine from the Nicolas Thienpont range. A solid structure backs up the ripe black-currant flavors. The wine will certainly age well, so wait until 2021. Monsieur Touton Selection Ltd. Best Buy.
Château Pré La Lande 2016 Terra Cotta (Sainte-Foy Côtes de Bordeaux); $23, 90 points. Structured, firm and with the potential of ripe fruits, this wine from Sainte-Foy’s first vintage as a Côtes de Bordeaux is ready for aging. Aged in amphorae, it has weight, concentration and dark tannins. The black fruits from biodynamic vines are still waiting to come through what will be a rich wine. Drink from 2020. Vigneron Imports.
Château Puygueraud 2017 Blanc (Francs Côtes de Bordeaux); $12, 90 points. Ripe tropical flavors dominate this rich Nicolas Thienpont wine, a full and fruity Sauvignon Blanc/Sauvignon Gris blend. Sure to develop impressively, it will be better from 2019. It’s available in limited quantities only due to spring frost. Monsieur Touton Selection Ltd. Best Buy.