Saint-Estèphe is one of the many famous Left Bank red wine appellations of Bordeaux, known for reds based on Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Situated at the northern end of the Haut-Médoc region on the gravelly western shores of the Gironde estuary, Saint-Estèphe is separated from its famous neighbour, Pauillac, only by a stream, yet there are significant differences between them. With 1,229 hectares (3036 acres) it accounts for 8 percent of the vineyard area of the Médoc.
Because Saint-Estèphe is marginally further from the gravel-bearing waters of the Garonne river, the soil here is far less stony than that found in the southern part of Haut-Médoc. Instead, a heavy clay and limestone base dominates this area, resulting in poorer-draining soils, delayed ripening and higher acidity levels in the wines.
These factors mean that, over the last few decades, many Saint-Estèphe's winemakers have increased their emphasis on Merlot, as it performs better on clay-rich soils than Cabernet Sauvignon. Because wines from here have traditionally been rather austere and tight in youth, Merlot also serves to soften the texture. Clay soils ability to retain moisture can come in handy during the occasional drought-like summers that have been known to bring a Bordeaux vintage to its knees. Other grapes permitted are Cabernet Franc, Carmenère, Côt (Malbec) and Petit Verdot.
The wines are richly coloured and deeply flavoured, and are known for their longevity. While most of the wine is produced under the cru bourgeois designation, it is the classed growths that continue to uphold the good reputation of Saint-Estèphe. These include the two second growths, Châteaux Cos d'Estournel and Montrose; third growth Château Calon-Ségur; fourth growth Château Lafon-Rochet; and fifth growth Château Cos Labory.