Rediscovering Médoc – A Special Feature

By Sara d’Amato

With notes from Michael Godel and David Lawrason

This feature was commissioned by Les Vins du Médoc. 

What first comes to mind for many at the mention of the well-known Bordelaise region of Médoc is likely that of prestige, Classified Growths, manicured Châteaux, unattainable prices or large wine companies. Yet this is only one dimension of Médoc’s multi-faceted richness. This dynamic region of Bordeaux is undergoing a revival and at its center are small producers, sustainable environmental changes and a new generation of young winemakers. And if you haven’t considered that there is value to be found in the region, then let me re-introduce you to Médoc.

Let’s face facts, the skyrocketing rise of popularity of new world wine over the past few decades has notably affected even the most established of old-world wine regions. Luckily, the perception of quality in the wines of the Médoc has been relatively unshaken due to the high esteem for the region’s Classified Growths. Yet, the fierce global demand for those Classified Growths conversely led to an impression that all Médoc wines are unrealistically priced, lacked value or were made primarily by large conglomerates or merchants. I hope to dismantle these misconceptions and introduce you all Médoc has to offer from the lofty to the humble and authentic. We’ll look past the Grand Crus and large companies to discover the smaller, family-run estates, many of which are now in the spotlight due to the revitalisation of an old designation known as Crus Artisans. With a new generation of winemakers also comes positive environmental momentum through impressive protectionist goals.

Let us first narrow in on the location and significance of the Médoc. The region includes 16,200 hectares of plantings making up 15% of Bordeaux’s vineyards. In terms of quality wine production, the Médoc’s significance is considerable. This left bank Bordelaise region in the Gironde department contains 8 appellations that include AOC Haut-Médoc, AOC Médoc (a specific delimited area), AOC Moulis en Médoc, AOC Listrac-Médoc, AOC St-Julien, AOC St-Estèphe, AOC Paulliac and AOC Margaux. Within these appellations are 600 Châteaux and 1000 brands that produce close to 94 million bottles per year. Yet they aren’t all massive. In fact, more than 20% of Chateaux in the region are less than 30 hectares in size while 15% are even smaller between 5-15 hectares (a size we more frequently associate with Burgundy). The collective export power is another impressive facet of Médoc which is valued at 860 million Euros in 2019. Finally, we mustn’t forget that Bordeaux has long been appreciated as an innovator when it comes to technological developments and winemaking savoir-faire.

We tend to think of Bordeaux as a series of classified estates, forgetting that terroir here is just as important to the outcome of the wines as it is anywhere else in France. We thus can’t fully appreciate the wines of Médoc until we delve into the rather varied climatic influences of the region. Maritime impact is key factor Médoc’s rather temperate climate that is neither too hot nor too cool. Located at the 45th parallel, it is guaranteed to receive a substantial number of sunshine hours over the growing season, but humidity can often be a challenge when it comes to quality production. Yields must be properly managed and grape varieties grown in sites specific to their individual needs. For example, merlot tends to prefer the cooler clay-based soils found in the AOC Médoc, Moulis and Listrac appellations while the late-ripening cabernet sauvignon prefers the more well-drained gravelly plains in many of the smaller communes.

The Médoc region is best described as a peninsula whose northern end is closest to the Atlantic and its southern end slightly more continental. The eastern banks face the river Gironde while the western banks face out towards the Atlantic. The region is known for its alluvial terraces of deposited gravel with varying degrees of clay, sand and limestone. The predominantly gravelly terraces allow the roots of vines to penetrate deeply in the ground and help retain and reflect heat making it ideal for the production of cabernet sauvignon. Gravel that is found throughout the Médoc originates from either the nearby Pyrenees or the ancient volcanic mountains of the Massif Central.

Biodiversity and Sustainability

In a region where humidity emanates from all directions, organic and biodynamic wine production is undoubtedly a challenge due to the potential proliferation of unfavourable phytosanitary conditions. Thus, we tend to leap to the conclusion that environmental conditions prevent Bordeaux from leading any ecologicalcharge. Yet, the Bordeaux AOC region as a whole is more progressive than most of us appreciate with respect to sustainable viticultural practices. As of 2019, 65% of the vineyards have been certified by some form of the environmental control whether it be organic, biodynamic, or the French HVE sustainable certification. The end goal is to achieve 100% of vineyards committed to sustainable environmental practices as soon as possible. The local trade association has collectively prioritized the need for biodiversity, research into reducing long term pesticide use along with carbon footprint and water management.

The Crus

Before we go any further describing the distinctive appellations, a word on the “Classed Growths” of the region. A “Growth” is a distinction based on a public image, brand or the historic significance of a producer. The most well-known of the families of Growths within the Médoc is that of Les Grand Crus Classés of 1855. With the exception of one Château in southern Bordeaux, all of the estates that were classified in 1855 can be found in the communes of Médoc region. There are 5 rankings of Classed Growths to which 60 estates in the Médoc are distinguished. The designation of a Classified Growth identifies a Châteaux of significant heritage in the region. Yet, there is much more diversity in the Médoc outside of the Grands Crus Classés. Other “families of growths” in the region include: “Cru Artisans” “Crus Bourgeois”, Cooperative Cellars and other growths.

If the Grand Crus Classés seem far out of reach, then look to the more attainable “Cru Bourgeois” designated wines. Until the 2017 vintage, the wines labelled Cru Bourgeois changed from year to year after an annual assessment. Since 2008, 250 crus are awarded this designation every year. Although Les Crus des Bourgeois classification has a long tradition awarding excellence in Bordeaux, there has been a fairly recent update to this category. As of February 2020, the classification is divided into three tiers: Cru Bourgeois, Cru Bourgeois Supérieur and Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel. The new, tiered system has specific requirements of quality at each level. In addition, the 249 Châteaux that are awarded the Crus Bourgeois designations since the 2018 vintage are able to use them for a period of five years before re-applying. View a full list of wines classified in 2020 here.

The Crus Artisans title is one that has existed for over 150 years and recognizes smaller properties that maintain a traditional or “artisanal” craftsmanship style. A revival in the late 1980’s followed by 1994 European regulatory decision means that the designation “Crus Artisans” may be mentioned on the wine’s front label. The designation classified 33 properties in 2017 that represent only 2% of Médoc’s vineyards. There are now 36 estates of AOC Crus Artisans du Médoc designations and that number is subject to further growth when the list is reviewed every 5 years.  In order to achieve this designation, the estate must be independent and take a “hands-on” approach. In addition, the production must be bottled at the estate that is located in one of the 8 appellations of the greater Médoc. You can find a full list of the Crus Artisans here.

The Appellations

The 8 AOC’s of the Médoc can be divided up into 2 Regional AOCs (think macro regions), those of Médoc and Haut-Médoc, as well as 6 smaller Communal AOC’s knowns as Moulis-en-Médoc, Listrac-Médoc, Margaux, Saint-Juilien, Pauillac and Saint-Estèphe. After a comprehensive tasting of all the wines available in Ontario from Médoc, the WineAlign team has chosen our top recommendations from within the following appellations. For a full list of our Médoc wine reviews, see here.

AOC Médoc

The distinct appellation known as AOC Médoc makes up the northern most appellation of the greater Médoc and is the closest to the Atlantic. Making up 34% of the greater Médoc’s vineyard area, the region produces wines that range between ageworthy and concentrated, to lively and easy-drinking. The appellation is rather cooperative heavy with ¼ of the production resulting form cooperative cellars. Unlike much of the greater Médoc, the regional AOC Médoc focuses slightly more on merlot than cabernet sauvignon. No classified growths are represented here but value is key here in this region brimming with potential.

Château Blaignan 2014, Cru Bourgeois, Médoc, France $27.95
Sara d’Amato – Now owned by the collective of the CA Grands Crus, this HVE certified estate of 97 hectares (planted to 60% cabernet and 40% merlot) has a history dating back to just post the French Revolution. This 2014 has held up remarkably well, is salty and notably structured. A pleasure to drink now.
David Lawrason – This is very good value in a maturing Medoc, from a moderate vintage that is showing more fruit and depth than expected. Best now to 2023.

Château Fontis 2010, Médoc, France $39.95
Sara d’Amato – The estate was appropriated by Vincent Boivert, son of Hélène Boivert, the proprietor of Château Les Ormes Sorbet in 1995. Sourced from estate grapes located on one of the most elevated outcroppings of the Médoc at 38 meters, Fontis’ 2010 50/50 blend of merlot and cabernet sauvignon is a delight after a remarkable 10 years in bottle. An exceptional vintage that has been gracefully aged still offering a juiciness on the palate and fine tannins.

AOC Haut-Médoc

In terms of export and recognition, the AOC Haut-Médoc dominates. This 60 km long region that stems from the border of the AOC Médoc to the southern tip of the greater region can boast the most varied type of wines in the greater Médoc. This connector region encircles the 6 communal AOC’s and accounts for 27% of the vineyard service of the greater Médoc. Here the wines tend to be rich yet accessible. Cabernet sauvignon dominates the blends in this region.

Château Du Breuil 2014, Haut Médoc, France $26.95
Michael Godel – It was a cool vintage and so no surprise there has been no rush for this wine to get anywhere too quick. That it has not, seemingly still tannic and grippy since last tasted two years ago.

Château Bel Orme Tronquoy De Lalande 2016, Haut Médoc, France $38.95
David Lawrason – This is a very pretty, quite elegant if still youthful Haut -Medoc with generous, ripe notes of violet, raspberry, sweet oak and cedary spice. Classic. Best 2022 to 2030.

AOC Moulis-en-Médoc

The smallest of the communal appellations, this western appellation breaks tradition with the surrounding appellations with a focus on merlot in the vineyards with 52% of the region planted to merlot. Because of the cooler clay-limestone based soils found in Moulis, the earlier ripening merlot variety is better suited to this growing region. It should be noted that just because a region has a greater number of plantings of a particular variety like merlot, it does not mean that all the wines are dominated by merlot. In the case of Moulis-en-Médoc, there are many wines produced that have cabernet as their dominant variety. Overall, a fine tannic structure makes these wines both elegant and accessible.

Château Poujeaux 2016, Moulis-en-Médoc, France $69.85
Michael Godel – Oft considered the jewel of Moulis-en-Médoc growing and coupled with an excellent vintage you will note that concentration, ripeness and structure all rise to their peak. Lovely and well distributed equity defines the potential of this ’16. It will please many and for many years to come. There are few equal or better buys in Bordeaux.
David Lawrason – This was a big, hot vintage making ripe, bold and hefty wines, and this powerful youngster is not ready for prime time. It is full bodied, firm and quite tannic with classic graphite on the finish. Best 2024 to 2030+.

AOC Listrac-Médoc

Located next to Moulis on the western edge of Médoc, Listrac’s similar soils also make it favourable for merlot where 65% of the growth is dedicated to this generous and inviting grape variety. Viticulture is similarly challenging to that of Moulis and thus significant work in the vineyards such as canopy management and yield reduction are practiced ensuring high quality fruit. The wine here tends to show good structure while often quite full-bodied in the mouth.

Château Clarke 2015, Listrac-Médoc, France $51.95
Sara d’Amato – From a showstopping vintage Château Clarke’s 2015 is showing no signs of stopping. Intense and built to last, Clarke’s blend is typical of the appellation featuring 70% merlot and 30% cabernet sauvignon. Offering notable complexity and concentration this perfectly ripe blend will be drinking optimally after another year or two in bottle yet.

AOC Margaux

The largest of the 6 communal appellations, Margaux makes up 10% of the plantings in the region. Located only 20 km from Bordeaux, Margaux is the most southerly of the communal appellations. Of notable repute, a majority of the estates (21) are Classed Growths. Margaux is also an important region for the Crus Artisans of which there are four and 8 crus bourgeois. You can expect wines to be opulent but polished and with great potential longevity.

Château d’Arsac 2015, Margaux, France $49.95
Michael Godel – If you are looking for high esteem Cru Bourgeois and classically perfumed floral Margaux then d’Arsac will give it a thrill. Mid-term drinkability as Bordeaux personified.
David Lawrason – Now maturing, this smooth, refined Margaux is showing complex aromas of cedar, leather, fresh earth plus subtle floral and berry notes. It is medium full bodied, quite elegant and almost lush. Best 2022 to 2029.

Château Tayac 2016, Margaux, France $39.95
Michael Godel – Exemplary fruit concentration from an outstanding vintage with real guts to match the level of joyous expressiveness. Phenomenal value for Margaux and 2016 Bordeaux

AOC Saint-Julien

Saint-Julien boasts the highest production volume of Classed Growth estates, contributing 87% of the Classed Growth production in the Médoc. Yet, the region is fairly small with only 19 producers. Although there are no first growth Châteaux, the AOC is made famous by many reputed Chateaux, the likes of: Gruaud Larose, Beychevelle and Las Cases. Located in the center of the Médoc region, the appellation is made up of two gravelly outcrops where cabernet sauvignon takes priority. You can expect aromatically generous wines, fine tannins and notable elegance but there is also great stylistic diversity to be found in Saint-Julien.

La Réserve de Léoville Barton 2015, Saint-Julien, France $78.00
Sara d’Amato – This second label of Château Leoville Barton is rich and elegant with a millefeuille of fine tannins. Precise and powerful with notes of graphite, black cherry skin, blackberry and tart plum. Not surprisingly somewhat austere and aristocratic at present but it should continue to mature gracefully. Blended from 71% cabernet sauvignon, 25% merlot and 4% cabernet franc.

AOC Pauillac

Just north of Saint-Julien, Pauillac also sits on the River side of the Médoc on very gravelly soils. Cabernet sauvignon is most dominant here and makes up over 60% of the plantings in the appellation. As far as Classed Growths are concerned, the entire range of Growths are represented in this powerhouse of an appellation. Wines here have considerable structure and ageability.

Le Pauillac de Château Latour 2014, Pauillac, France $100.00
Sara d’Amato – This is 3rd wine of the first Growth estate of Château Latour, a wine designed for the restaurant market and has been made every year since 1989. Made from a blend of predominantly young vines typically consisting of about 45% merlot, the fruit has been made center stage with barely audible gentle spice from oak. Elegant and accessible now.
David Lawrason – This is the third label from Château Latour, designed to showcase the Pauillac appellation above all, and it is there in the sense firmness yet elegance.  There is real finesse here, and lovely tension. Best 2022 to 2030+.

AOC Saint-Estèphe

The most northerly commune of the Haut-Médoc regional area, Saint-Estèphe is awash in gravel, clay and sandy soils. Like Pauillac, all ranks of the Classed Growth system are represented reinforcing the appellation’s significance. The wines of Saint-Estèphe are known for their perfume but are also considerably structured and long-lived.

Château Sérilhan 2016, Saint Estèphe, France $51.00
Sara d’Amato – From a riper vintage, this typical Saint Estèphe blend of 60% cabernet sauvignon and 40% merlot is a little jammier than the norm but offering impressive concentration. Château Sérilhan has been newly designated as Cru Bourgeois Supérieur and is HVE sustainably certified. This family-owned Château of only 20 hectares has just celebrated its 20th anniversary.

Now that you have a better understanding of the richness of Médoc, its complex classifications that ensure diversity and representation as well as its strong stance on sustainability, I encourage you to venture out and discover these appellations for yourself. Traditionalists with a progressive approach is how I like to sum up the modern spirit of the Médoc region and I hope to see it continue to evolve.

If this taste of the Médoc has you wanting more, join me and John Szabo, the Wine Thieves, as we begin our journey through dynamic region shortly in a three-part podcast series posted on WineAlign.

Episode 1: Médoc, the Next Generation

Stay tuned for the next two episodes.


Sara d’Amato

This feature was commissioned by Les Vins du Médoc. As a regular feature, WineAlign tastes wines submitted by a single winery, agent or region. Our writers independently, as always, taste, review and rate the wines – good, bad and indifferent, and those reviews are posted on WineAlign. We then independently recommend wines to appear in the article. Wineries, wine agents, or regions pay for this service. Ads for some wines may appear at the same time, but the decision on which wines to put forward in our report, and its content, is entirely up to WineAlign.