Communes – what’s in a name


France’s Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), controls which grape varieties and winemaking practices can be used in wines labelled as AOC. AOC’s can cover entire regions such as Bordeaux or Burgundy, or they can be more specific and state particular communes or districts such is the case with Pauillac or St.Julien. These communes are prestigious and the AOC rules state that no vineyard outside the fence of any commune can add that name to their label.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the plots of vineyard land in each commune are crammed together to maximise the use of the greatest terroir. The first growths are located on the best terroir, in the case of St.Julien and Pauillac this is where the gravel banks are the deepest, with the second growths often huddled around them. Generally speaking these mounds are found near the Gironde and it is said that the vines ‘Like to see the water but not get wet’ and as such all the top chateau have a waterfront view where they benefit from the warm estuary, on elevated mounds which provide excellent drainage.

Graves & Pessac-Leognan – As the name suggests the top vineyards in this commune boast abundant gravel. Before the marshlands of Bordeaux were drained this was the heart of Bordeaux viticulture. Today with the city of Bordeaux expanding many chateaux are found near or inside the city limits with Ch. Haut-Brion and Ch. La Mission Haut-Brion actually found in the city suburbs. These great estates have more sand in the vineyards than those of the Haut-Medoc, this accounts for the higher degree of Merlot planted and the wine’s enhanced harmony and elegance.

  • Tasting note: Blackcurrant and plum fruit, nuanced with earthy tones of tobacco (Havana Haut-Brion) minerality, carried with creamy layours.

Margaux – Famously perfumed wines. The town is found upon a gravel island (peaking at 10-15 m, 35-50ft), however, Ch. Margaux and Ch. Palmer which boast the communes best soil are not completely gravel. The gravel here is shallow by comparison to Pauillac with limestone directly underneath. The vines slope down the estuary and it is this poor, shallow soil and good drainage that gives these great wines the elegant scent that defines them.

  • Tasting note: A reputation for a perfume of violets, rose petals and cedar, dry ripe fruit of blackcurrants and damsons. Often described as silky, soft and feminine.

St.Julien – The commune is small comprising 899 ha (2220 acres) of which 79 percent are owned by classed growths. It is home to some of the greatest wines of the Haut-Medoc. The all important gravel mounds piled up during the Ice Age floods define this commune. The topsoil is dominated by gravel and under this there is enough clay, limestone and other mixed material to provide nourishment to the roots, as well as helping with water retention and creating a deep water basin.

  •  Tasting note: These wines are balanced and delicate. Famed for a restrained cedar-wood perfume and elegant blackcurrant fruit set. They are rich and rounded with supple tannins. Often displaying, cherry and chocolate. St Julien is the midpoint between Margaux and Pauillac.

Pauillac – The most impressive gravel plateau of the Medoc. Ch. Lafite Rothschild and Ch. Mouton Rothschild occupy a peak on an impressive plateau in the North of the Commune which stands at 27m (88ft). Ch. Latour is situated in the South of the Appellation and stands 14 m (47ft) above sea-level, providing further drainage and the best view of the Gironde. The high mounds mean that the roots have to dig deep to find the water basin, struggling and concentrating their energy. The soil contains iron adding an extra minerality and richness to the wine.

  • Tasting note: Rich blackcurrant fruit combined with powerful cedar-wood, elegant pencil-shavings and cigar-box. The tannins are big, powerful and in great vintages extremely ripe.

 St.Estephe– It is half a mile from the gates of Ch. Lafite to those of Ch. Cos d’Estournel. This great estate is found in a great drainage channel and high on a gravel mound, its traits are those of Pauillac. Once past Ch. Cos d’Estournel St-Estephe begins to lose its gravel mounds, although the village itself is built upon a gravel and limestone mound, which is where we find Ch. Calon-Segur. After this the gravel falls away and clay becomes more apparent.

  • Tasting note: The brawniest wines, often more austere. Big blackcurrant and cedar flavours and with notable exceptions, lacking the elegance of St.Julien and Pauillac.Bordeaux is marked by a strong ‘goût de terroir’. The best soils produce wines of distinction, power, finesse and complexity that live long in the bottle and on the palate.