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"Every year we are used to the weather, the winemaker, and the terroir each playing its part in the great wines of Bordeaux. The annual variations are part of the charm." So says Hubert de Bouard, owner of Château Angélus in Saint Émilion, and president of one of the region's most powerful wine bodies. And certainly the fascination with this most mythical of wine regions can be in part attributed to the feeling that even with a lifetime's study, there will always be something new to discover about Bordeaux.

Bordeaux is France's largest quality wine region - comprising 123,000 hectares of vines that stretch from the mouth of the Atlantic Ocean at the Gironde Estuary, over to the truffle-rich border of the Dordogne to the east, and down to the plums, tomatoes and sunflowers of the Lot et Garonne to the south. The entire area radiates 60 miles outwards from the city that lies at its heart; a city that in July 2007 was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its perfectly preserved 18th century buildings that lie around the crescent-shaped harbour.

Wine has been produced in Bordeaux for 2,000 years - and these millennia of history, together with the nature of a region so close to a major ocean, has meant that over the centuries, individual districts have taken on their own highly distinct personalities, and these personalities are reflected in the wine they produce. The French like to call this terroir - but at its simplest, it is a reflection of the geological influence of the centuries, together with the climate variations that govern each area (Saint Émilion, for example, has hotter summers but is more vulnerable to frost in spring time than the Médoc, with its constantly moving flow of air from the river Garonne). The winemakers themselves, of course, have also influenced their own individual plots of lands; building drainage channels, carrying out careful vineyard work and matching the grape varieties to the appropriate soils.

In total, there are 57 different areas, or appellations, in the region. In a move to simplify things somewhat, as of the 2008 harvest, four areas (Premières Côtes de Bordeaux, Côtes de Blaye, Côtes de Castillon, Côtes de Francs) are joining together to form one simple Côtes de Bordeaux region, so the number will reduce to 54. However, what will remain unchanged is the myriad subtle differences across Bordeaux that all do their part to contribute to the richness of the whole.

Of the 54, perhaps a dozen are known the world over. The most revered family is the Médoc; a long finger of land that stretches upwards on the Left Bank of the river from the city of Bordeaux, framed by the Garonne river to the east and the Atlantic ocean to the west. It is protected from the ravages of the ocean winds by a barrier of pine trees that follows the coast. There are eight appellations here: Saint Julien, Pauillac, Saint Estèphe, Margaux, Listrac-Médoc, Moulis-en-Médoc, Haut Médoc and Médoc.

Furthest south, just 30km upriver from the city centre, the appellation of Margaux contains many illustrious names, from Château Margaux, to Château Palmer, to Château Cantenac Brown. Margaux also holds some of the most varied terroir in the Médoc, as the vineyards are situated on gravelly islands surrounded by streams and marshland. The gravel is particularly deep here, but with smaller stones than further north, and around the communes of Margaux and Cantenac a series of white gravel ridges forms the home for the 18 crus classés from the famous 1855 ranking. Margaux wines are said to be the most feminine of the Left Bank, with a freshness and heady perfume that is not easily forgotten.

Moving northwards, Saint Julien contains 11 cru classé Châteaux, from Château Beychevelle to Château Talbot. Most of its 900 hectares overlook the Garonne river, and the wines are full bodied and elegant, known as the archetypal English gentleman's claret. Upon ageing, they develop wonderful cedar and cigar-smoke aromas.

Just above Saint Julien is Pauillac, with over 1,200 hectares of well drained gravelly slopes. It is here that three of the five first growths are found - Château Latour, Château Lafite Rothschild and Château Mouton Rothschild - and in total 18 classified growths, including many of the so-called Super Seconds such as Château Lynch Bages. The wines are deeply coloured and intense, and the longest-living of Bordeaux. Further north again are the slightly silkier wines of Saint Estèphe, where you find five classified growths. Many of them, such as Château Montrose, look out over the Garonne River and the fishermen's huts that line the estuary road.

Crossing over the Garonne, to the Right Bank of the river, lie the softer, sweeter wines of Saint Émilion and the Libournais. This area has a longer history of winemaking than the Médoc, and is in many ways its mirror opposite. Where the wines of the Left Bank are largely influenced by the muscular Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot grapes, over on the Right Bank it is Merlot that holds sway. And while the soils of the Left Bank are largely gravel, meaning they heat in the sun and are good for late-ripening varieties such as Cabernet, over on the Right Bank they are largely clay and limestone, cooler terroirs that suit earlier ripening varieties such as Merlot and Cabernet Franc. And where the Médoc contains many large vineyards, the Right Bank is made up of a myriad small-holdings, with 800 winegrowers in the Saint Émilion area alone.

Covering 5,400 hectares, Saint Emilion has two appellations; Saint Emilion and Saint Emilion Grand Cru. The second of these is further divided into Grand Cru Classé and Premiere Grand Cru Classé, and is the source of such wonderful wines as Château Ausone, Château Cheval Blanc, Château Angélus and Château La Gaffelière. The best vineyards are situated on the steep côtes, and to the west on a gravelly section of the plateau.

Its neighbour, equally prestigious and sought-after by many wine connoisseurs, is Pomerol. This is a small appellation, covering 750 hectares, that unlike other major appellations does not divide its wines into further rankings. Like all of the districts mentioned here, it is exclusively for red wines (just 11% of the wine produced in Bordeaux is white), containing such sought-after names as Le Pin and Pétrus, and such rising stars as La Conseillante and Clos René. Pomerol wines are among the most silky, luxurious and seductive wines in Bordeaux, and are often described as having hints of dark chocolate, rich prunes and violets.

All of these appellations contain a mixture of classic names and rising contenders, all striving to establish or maintain their privileged status as the stars of Bordeaux.

"It is in Pauillac that three of the five first growths are found - Château Latour, Château Lafite Rothschild and Château Mouton Rothschild - and in total 18 classified growths, including many of the so-called Super Seconds such as Château Lynch Bages."

Jane Anson is a writer and columnist, based in Bordeaux, and was nominated for best Wine Writer in the prestigious Glenfiddich Food and Drink Awards in 2007. She is Decanter magazine's Bordeaux correspondent, and the author of several guides to Bordeaux, Toulouse and Corsica for Thomas Cook Publishing. She also writes for the Telegraph and a number of other international publications.