Published on March 23rd, 2015 | by Allison Wallace0
Making the Most of Your Wine Trip to Bordeaux
Of the world’s best wine regions, Bordeaux often sits near the very top in most wine consumer’s opinions. Its top wines are among the most expensive and highly praised wines in the world. These wines are often the reference point by which other wines are judged. But Bordeaux is much more than just ultra-expensive and impossible to get collector’s items. It is not just one of the world’s great wine producing regions, it is also one of the largest and as such offers a myriad of different wines to satisfy just about any palate and any budget. The region can seem a little daunting to those who have not been there. But fear not, for Bordeaux is surprisingly easy to navigate once you know a few basics about the region and its wines.
At over 120,000 hectares under vine, Bordeaux is France’s largest vineyard area and produces annually about 700 million bottles of wine. Perhaps the easiest way to understand Bordeaux is to understand its geography. The region surrounds the estuary of the Gironde, Dordogne and Garonne Rivers near France’s west coast. The region is usually divided into those areas on either side of this estuary; those on the west side are referred to as the “Left Bank” and those on east side are referred to as the “Right Bank”. When deciding on where to go in Bordeaux, the first things you want to know about are the differences between the Left Bank and the Right Bank.
Looking at the map above, you can see the distinction created by the estuary. Those names on the bottom of the graphic; Medoc, St. Estephe, Paulliac, St Julien, Haut Medoc, Margauux and Pessac Leognan are the principal areas (or appellations as they are called in France) of the left Bank. The distinguishing feature of the Left Bank is the dominant grape varietal grown there.
Throughout Bordeaux, wines are made of a blend of grapes as opposed to from a single varietal. The Left Bank is Cabernet Sauvignon country, where this varietal usually makes up between 60% – 80% of the blend, with supporting notes coming from Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot and Malbec. The wines here are the envy of the Cabernet Sauvignon growing world. The Left Bank is home to names like Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Latour and Chateau Margaux, wineries that have been producing for centuries and are among the most collectible and most expensive in the world. But mixed in with them are many “lesser Chateaux” that produce delicious wines at affordable prices.
Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux is known for its deep colour and its black currant flavours, its secondary notes of cedar and earthiness. The tannins in these wines can be quite prominent and contribute to their ageability. As you travel south along the Left Bank from St. Estephe you should notice a slight shift in the style of the wines. Those cedar notes will gradually take on a more floral character (think violets) and the tannins may be a little less aggressive. Different styles for different palates.
One of the great features of the Left Bank is the size of its estates. Many can be quite large, in the 50 to 80 hectare range, and some of the Chateaux on them can be exquisite, such as the famed Chateau Margaux, pictured below.
White wine also is found on the Left Bank, but in very small quantities. Sauvignon Blanc is blended with Semillon to make rich tasting whites of class and distinction. Dessert wines from Sauternes and Barsac are made from the same white grapes and can be spectacular. Chateau d’Yquem from Sauternes is often reviewed as the greatest sweet wine in the world. These areas are found in the southern most part of Bordeaux.
Moving to the Right Bank, its primary appellations are shown on the right side of the map. They are Blaye, Bourg, Pomerol and St. Emillion. Whereas the Left Bank is Cabernet country, the Right Bank is dominated by Merlot. Slightly cooler temperatures and less gravel and more clay in the top soils of the Right Bank account for the difference in the grapes planted. Here Merlot grows as well as anywhere in the world and will make up 60% – 90% of the blend. Cabernet Franc usually makes up the balance with the other blending grapes often playing no role at all. These wines are prized for their soft, lush textures and rich dark cherry and plum flavour profile. Tannins are typically less aggressive in these grape varietals and can account for their ability to drink well at an earlier age. The vignerons of the Right Bank like to point out their peasant roots in contrast to the very aristocratic Left Bank and refer to their much smaller estates (5 hectares being about the norm with almost none over 10 hectares) and their lack of grand chateaux on their properties. But don’t let this outward modesty fool you: the Right Bank is home to some of the most coveted collector wines in the world; names like Petrus, Lafleur, Le Pin, Cheval Blanc and Ausone can cost as much and in some cases twice as much as the top wines from the Left Bank.
Between the Left and the Right Bank, and to the south of them sits Entre Deux Mers. This region does both red and whites of easy drinking, value priced wines. While they produce perfectly acceptable wines, they are generally not wines of distinction. Travellers from North America going all the way across the Atlantic to taste and learn about wine are likely to want to spend most of their wine tour in the Left and Right Bank appellations upon which the reputation of Bordeaux was built.
Hopefully the foregoing will help you decide which bank you want to spend most of your time touring in, based upon the regions various differences in grapes and the resulting wines. But what about quality? How does one sort out which are the best wines and which are the more affordable wines? The Bordelais have a classification system which separates the various wineries into different classes. Each Bank has their own separate classification system. The Left Bank has six classifications. At the bottom are the Cru Bourgeois. These are the entry level wines and are the most affordable. Above them are the Fifth Growth wines. These are wines of distinction and are more expensive than the Cru Bourgeois. Moving up from there are Fourth Growths, Third Growths, Second Growths and finally the top of the hierarchy, the First Growths. These classifications were created in 1855 under the auspices of Emperor Napoleon III. There are now 61 Left Bank wines in the classification, five of which have the distinction of being First Growths. While the relationship is not necessarily linear, price and classification are closely correlated.
The Right Bank does not have a similar classification covering all of its appellations, just St. Emillion does. Created 100 years after the Left Banks classification, the St. Emillion classification has just three classifications: the best being Premier Grand Cru A (which hosts four wines) followed by Premier Grand Cru B (14 wines) and Grand Cru Classe (63 wines). Pomerol and the other Right Bank appellations have no classification system.
To briefly summarize the differences between the Left Bank and the Right Bank, this table may help:
|Grape||Cabernet Sauvignon with small amounts of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot and Malbec. Tiny amounts of white wine and luscious dessert wines.|
|Soil||Gravel over limestone bedrock|
|Flavour profile||Black currant, cedar, minerals, floral, structured|
|Estates||Large size, grand structures|
|Location||West side of Gironde estuary|
|Grape||Merlot with Cabernet Franc.|
|Soil||Clay over limestone bedrock|
|Flavour profile||Dark cherry, plum, soft, rich|
|Estates||Small size, no large Chateaux|
|Location||East side of Gironde estuary|
Bordeaux is a fascinating wine region to visit. It is approximately a three hour drive southwest of Paris. Enjoy big, structured Cabernet Sauvignon wines showing black currants on the left Bank, soft rich Merlot-based wines showing dark cherry and plum on the Right Bank or delicious dessert wines just to the south. You will be among some of the world’s greatest and most historic wines.
Have a great trip!