A Quick & Dirty Intro to Bordeaux: Right Bank vs. Left Bank

In honor of our Merlot tasting this week, we thought we’d talk a bit about this grape’s birthplace and noble heritage, which lie in the tumultuous and prestigious river banks of Bordeaux. Being the largest fine wine region in the world, and having no fewer than 57 appellations to speak of, with loads of history, intrigue, and hype, Bordeaux can be a little bit intimidating to the everyday wine drinker. But lucky for us, there are a few sweeping generalizations that can be made about Bordeaux, which can help us to get a grasp on this all too mysterious region.

Let’s talk about the rivers: Bordeaux is cut down the center by the Gironde Estuary, which splits apart into the Dordogne River and the River Garonne. You’ll hear a lot of wine folks talk about Bordeaux in terms of ‘Right Bank’ and ‘Left Bank’, and the land that straddles these rivers is exactly what we’re talking about. The Left Bank/Right Bank distinction, however, is not just something wine snobs throw around to look smart: it is the most fundamental step to understanding Bordeaux. Not only does a huge shift in terroir occur from one bank to the other, there is also a major switch in terms of grape variety planted (and if you master this one little bit of information, you will know a lot more about Bordeaux than you think!): Merlot is the dominant planting on the Right Bank, and Cabernet Sauvignon is the dominant planting on the Left Bank.

If you can remember a few other differences between the Left Bank and Right Bank, you’ll have enough info to not only make some educated wine decisions, but also impress friends at cocktail parties (well, maybe).

Left bank:

  • Planted largely to Cabernet Sauvignon, with some Cab Franc, Merlot, Petite Verdot, and Malbec.
  • Gravelly top soil with a limestone bedrock. The stony top soil makes the vines reach down deep for their nutrients, creating a more desirable environment for old vines that create age-able wines.
  • Generally flat
  • Most famous regions: Medoc, Graves, Sauternes, St. Estephe, Paulliac, Margaux, St. Julien
  • All the original chateaux from the original 1855 classification are on the Left Bank.

Right Bank:

  • Planted largely to Merlot, with a lot of Cab Franc, some Cab Sauvignon, Petite Verdot, and Malbec.
  • Limestone emerges at the surface here (rather than being buried, as it is on the Left Bank). Gravel is less predominant. The only exception is the Pomerol (called by some a mini-Medoc), where a tributary of the Dordogne has dumped millions of tons of gravel and created a bed rock of sandy clay deposits and a layer of iron rich sands.
  • Generally flat as well, with the exception of St. Emilion and Cotes de Castillon, which make a dramatic slope toward the river.
  • Most famous regions are St. Emilion, Pomerol, and Fronsac.

Both the Left Bank and the Right Bank are home to some fantastic wines (and even — shocker! — some good value wines). And the best way to get a grasp on the differences is to taste, taste, taste. Hard work, we know.

Posted by Jane.

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