Would You Know Your Bordeaux Wine From Your Claret? (Part 3)

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A Tale of Two Bordeaux– Left and Right Bank.

As outlined in my previous posts in this French wine post trilogy, Bordeaux Wine Part 1, and Part 2, Bordeaux is home to a large number of wine-growing areas.

It is naturally divided by the Gironde Estuary, breaking it up into two main regions – the Left and Right Banks.

As pointed out, neither one has anything to do with financial institutions, but a lot to do with wine making style, soil, culture, price, and prestige.

To recap, the left and right bank refers to either side of the Gironde Estuary and its two rivers, the Dordogne and Garonne. Land above the rivers is known as the Right Bank while anything below falls into the Left Bank. Between the two areas you’ll find the Entre Deux-Mers (between two seas), a sort of middle ground that produces good value wines.

Bordeaux wine – the Left Bank and Graves.

This area consists of two zones surrounding the city of Bordeaux. North of the city is Medoc; in the south, Graves.

The Left Bank is like the old guard of the region, where the most exclusive Chateaux are found. Their Cabernet-dominant wines tend to be tannic, masculine, and capable of aging for many decades. They also fetch top prices. Other varietals that you’ll find on this side are Malbec, Cabernet Franc, and Petite Verdot.

In general, the soil is mainly gravel and the wines tend to have more alcohol, acidity, and tannin. Regions include Médoc, Haute-Médoc (incl. Saint-Estéphe, Pauillac, Saint-Julien, Margaux), Graves, Pessac-Léognan, Sauternes, and Barsac.

Medoc

Medoc protrudes like a narrow tongue on the western bank of the Gironde Estuary and is made up of two sub-areas: Bas-Medoc and Haut-Medoc.

Bas-Medoc.

The northernmost part of the Left Bank, has soil that is predominantly clay. Wines from here are for early drinking. Merlot-based and of average value, Medoc is the reference appellation found on these wine labels.

Haut-Medoc When you see this appellation name, things generally step up in quality. The soil in Haut-Medoc is gravel dominated, meaning a higher percentage of cabernet sauvignon is planted. Within the Haut-Medoc, a number of highly regarded communes are allowed to put their name on the label. In practice, there is a separate AC for each of these communes.

Barrels in Ch. Montrose Cellar

From north to south, these are as follows:

  • Saint-Estephe
    • the most north of these acclaimed communes
    • the soil has more clay and less gravel than other parts
    • as a consequence, more merlot is present
    • the wines are full and structured and generally have fleshy flavours
  • Pauillac
    • the archetypical Left Bank Bordeaux
    • the soil here is deep and poor, abundant in gravel
    • the blends, cabernet sauvignon dominated
    • great structure and density
    • wines are darker in colour with a piercing and concentrated fruitiness perfectly integrated with notes of cedar and cigar box when aged
    • these reds are full of vigour and take longer to mature – but when they are ready, reward the drinker with the essence of Bordeaux.
  •  Saint Julien
    • great balance between fruit and tannins; perfume and acidity
    • stylistically somewhere between the structured Pauillac and the refined Margaux
  • Margaux
    • the most south of the prestigious village appellations, so slightly warmer in temperature
    • wines are perfumed, rarely massive, with a haunting scent of violets, blackcurrant and black cherry
    • the classical Margaux style is often described as an “iron fist in a velvet glove”

3 bottles of Ch de Rayne Vigneau - sauternes

The Graves

The Graves district sits just south of the city of Bordeaux and as its name suggests, the soil here is very gravelly – hence suitable for cabernet sauvignon.

The reds produced in Graves are generally lighter than those from Medoc but are more fragrant and approachable. The best wines are found in the Pessac-Leognan area of Graves. The remaining areas produce more humble wines, with more merlot in the blend. These reds are less concentrated and complex.

The Graves appellation also produces white wines, both dry and sweet. Their dry whites range from simple to more complex and concentrated. Simple wines are fresh, unoaked and are generally made entirely from sauvignon blanc.

While the complex and concentrated wines (notably from Pessac-Leognan) tend to be blends, medium to full in body, fermented and aged in barrel. They combine ripe lemony fruit with toasty flavours from oak. The best sweet white wines of the area (and possibly in the entire world) come from the banks of the Garonne river and its tributaries, namely around Sauternes and Barsac.

  • The appellations of Sauternes and Barsac make wines are typically blends dominated by semillon. They exude opulent and exotic flavours such as stone fruit and mango. Combined with crystallized citrus aromas, as well as toast and vanilla notes (from barrel fermentation/ageing).

Different Styles

As I mentioned in my previous post (part 2), both Right & Left Bank red Bordeaux and made with traditional local grape varieties using similar wine making techniques, yet each bank has its own distinctive style. Although it’s very difficult to generalise since each appellation and each estate has unique conditions and wine making philosophies, here’s a summary of the flavour profiles commonly found in the Left Bank:

Left Bank style:

  • Usually dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon so more tannic
  • Powerful, punchy style
  • Concentrated aromas and flavours of dark fruit which develop into truffle, cigar box, leather and spices with ageing
  • Often plenty of acidity as the grapes struggle to ripen fully
  • Most require further ageing after release to soften their tannins, sometimes for decades

Chateau Margeaux

Final Thoughts on Bordeaux Wine

Traditionally, wine critics and enthusiasts have slightly favoured the Left Bank with its famous chateau like Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Latour, Château Margaux, Château Mouton-Rothschild and Château Haut-Brion.

In recent years, though, the Right Bank has staged a fight back with fabulous wines from top chateau like Château Angélus, Château Ausone, Château Pavie, and Petrus as well as lesser-known estates.

It’s All Bordeaux to Me

I sincerely hope that this trilogy on Bordeaux wine has enticed you to begin (or continue) a journey to becoming a Bordeaux lover.

Green Acres have been doing business in this area of France for over 25 years and have an excellent reputation for the wine team’s knowledge and expertise in the area.

If you would like to know more about the region, sample some of its wines or even set-up a little cellar of your own let myself or Donal know, and we’ll treat you to a coffee while we chat.

I should also let you know that as I write this we are in the middle of the Bordeaux En Primeur 2018 campaign. If you would like to see our latest offers click on this link – En Primeur 2018.

One last thing – did you know that we launched the Green Acres mobile app recently? Now you can bring us home in your pocket. Book tables, browse wines, learn of special offers, check events, connect with us, earn loyalty rewards and much more.  We would really appreciate if you would click on either of the tabs below to download for free.

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Talk to you soon – Au Revoir, James.

wine bottle and glass silhoutte