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Bordeaux Label Decoder

Whether shopping for the cellar or Tuesday night’s dinner, stare down your shop’s selection of Left Bank reds like a pro with this at-a-glance guide to deciphering the famous region’s uuuuh-inducing labels.

Left Bank Basics

There are two major regions: Médoc (known for its reds), and Graves (known for reds and whites). While great pours can be had throughout Bordeaux, in general, the smaller the appellation d’origine controlée, or AOC, the higher the quality.

Starting with the largest AOC, there’s Médoc, then the subregion Haut-Médoc and its famed Haut-Médoc communes: Listrac-Médoc, Margaux, Moulis-en-Médoc, Pauillac Saint-Estèphe, and Saint-Julien.

Starting with the largest AOC, there’s Graves, then the subregion Pessac-Léognan. For sweet whites, there’s Graves Supérieures, Sauternes—which encompasses the smaller Barsac subregion—and Cérons.

Bordeaux label

Standard Bordeaux label

1. Mis En Bouteille Au Château
Means bottled at the estate, within the listed region. If the label says, “Mis En Bouteille Au Domaine,” it was bottled in the region. If you see “Négociant,” the grapes, the juice or the wine were bought, but released under a different brand.

2. Grand Vin
This means “great wine.” It may be great, but anyone can throw this unregulated term on a label.

3. This tells you it’s a Cab Blend 
Left Bank reds are typically blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, and may include Petit Verdot and Malbec. Most Left Bank dry whites are Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc blends. The best often hail from Graves and Pessac-Léognan, the only Left Bank appellations that may list their regions on white wine labels.

4. Top Dry-Red Vintages
1961, 1970, 1978, 1982, 1985, 1990, 1996, 2000, 2005, 2009 and 2010

5. The Big House
According to French law, a label can only feature a chateau if it’s the original house and still standing.

6. The Bordeaux 1855 Official Classification
After Napoleon requested Bordeaux wines be classified for the Paris World Fair, 61 Left Bank chateaus were divided into five “growths.” The system has nothing to do with grape growing, and while it was supposedly based on reputation and pricing—not quality (wink)—it still is seen as a ranking of the top producers. It consists of 60 chateaus in the Haut-Médoc and one in Pessac-Léognan.

The 5 Premier Crus Classés 

  • Château Haut-Brion
    Château Lafite Rothschild
    Château Latour
    Château Margaux
    ​Château Mouton Rothschild

The Rest

Chateaus within the four other tiers are labeled Grand Cru Classé 1855.

Are 1855 Wines Better?

No. Historically, the 61 chateaus have been the standard bearers among hundreds of producers in Bordeaux. Still, a Napoleon-era declaration doesn’t preclude anyone from making terrific wine.