In the hillsides of Bordeaux, the next generations of winemaking families are creating the region’s most exciting yet accessible wines.
There’s a movement happening in the hillsides of Bordeaux. Along the right banks of the Garonne and Dordogne Rivers, the families who have farmed these historic vineyards for centuries are welcoming a new generation of innovative, energetic winemakers who are crafting delicious, dynamic wines. This is Côtes de Bordeaux, home to some of the region’s most exciting yet accessible wines—and there has never been a better time to explore.
“In order for a region to succeed, it needs the soul and passion of the people,” says Yannick Benjamin, the sommelier and owner of New York City’s forthcoming Contento restaurant, “and I can testify that the individuals who work the land in Côtes de Bordeaux exemplify this spirit.”
The Côtes de Bordeaux comprises five appellations—Blaye, Cadillac, Castillon, Francs and Sainte-Foy—set on sunny hillsides, or côtes. This land has long been valued for its rich clay-limestone soil and higher elevation, imbuing the wines produced with distinct freshness, but was often overlooked in the looming presence of more famous châteaus and appellations.
This is Merlot country, where winemakers craft fruit-forward wines with soft, velvety tannins. Blended with other Bordeaux grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Malbec, Merlot creates enjoyable, ready-to-drink wines with verve and complexity. Though the myriad wineries here create a wide range of wines—including a few white and sweet wines—they typically see restrained oak usage, making them incredibly food-friendly.
When four of the five appellations decided to band together under the Côtes de Bordeaux umbrella in 2007—to be joined by Sainte-Foy in 2016—they created a designation that offers the best of both worlds: a recognizable, easy-to-trust region that also offers the diversity of five distinct terroirs. Though they share a reputation for high-quality, easy-drinking, approachable wines, each appellation has its own personality and style, making Côtes de Bordeaux ripe for exploration.
The individual appellations of Côtes de Bordeaux also share a collective ethos and energy, cultivated by the small, family-run estates dotted throughout these rolling hills. Rather than being directed to a tourism center or herded into a group tour, if you knock on the door of a Côtes de Bordeaux winery, chances are you’ll be greeted by the winemaker or another family member. “Based on my experience, wineries that remain a family affair offer a product that has integrity—soulful, and pure, and the vineyards take precedence,” says Benjamin.
Now, a new generation is taking the reins, driven by young winemakers—many of them women—who bring global experience and perspective to their family’s vineyards. They are experimenting with new winemaking techniques and practices in the vineyard, looking for ways to better express the essence of this land. “There are a lot of wineries that have taken on the philosophy of a minimalist approach,” says Benjamin, “where they let the terroir express itself in each bottle.”
While sustainability has been practiced in Côtes de Bordeaux for centuries, many wineries are now prioritizing these practices, working to avoid chemical treatments, promote biodiversity and prepare for climate change. “These are family-owned vineyards,” says Benjamin, “and they want to be able to hand over the vineyards to the next generation, but in order to do, so they know they must respect nature and not try to change it.”
Though the Côtes de Bordeaux has a long history of viticulture, this is just the beginning of the region’s new and exciting chapter. These hillsides are full of discoveries.