When it comes to Bordeaux, there is a lot to know and it can be very intimidating. From the soaring price tags to immense critical acclaim, where should one start in deciding what is good to drink? Well, the aim of Vine Language is to go back to basics and therefore, starting with the differences between the Left Bank and the Right Bank, feels like a good place to start. Not only will this help you understand a bit more about the region, it will also help you to identify which wines you are more likely to enjoy. So, let's start at the beginning, the map...
As you can see, the region is nicely separated by an estuary (the Gironde Estuary) and then two rivers (the River Dordogne to the north and the River Garonne to the south) which is where we get the Left Bank and the Right Bank from. You need to look at the map with the sea at the top to correctly apply the left and right as the Left Bank is anything south of the River Garonne and the Right Bank is anything north of the River Dordogne.
Although geographically they may be close, there are a lot of differences when it comes to crossing the river.
A key distinction between the two banks is what grapes are predominantly used in the region. The dominant grape on the left is Cabernet Sauvignon, whilst on the right it is Merlot. On the Left Bank Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Franc are the supporting grapes for the blend. Meanwhile, on the right bank, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Petit Verdot are the supporters for the Merlot driven blends.
What does this mean for the wine?
Well, it results in the Left Bank wines being more tannic. They will be bolder and are more often suitable for aging. Right Bank wines tend to be more fruit forward with a softer mouthfeel. It is more common to drink these younger than their Left Bank counterparts.
But this doesn't all come from the grapes, another important difference is the soil and terrain.
The Left Bank is mostly flat, somewhat owing to the fact that it is predominantly the drained marsh land that the Dutch uncovered (read the history of Bordeaux blog if you want to know more about this). It has gravel topsoil and limestone underneath. The gravel provides excellent drainage and also more of a challenge for the vines. Why is this important? Well, by making the roots struggle through the rocks to find water and nutrients it results in the vines producing more concentrated, flavourful grapes.
On the Right you will find clay and limestone soils. The denser clay soils help produce rich, concentrated wines and also help the vines cope with the higher summer temperatures and low rainfall as they retain water better than their Left Bank counterparts.
Climate: another important difference.
They might not be thousands of miles apart but the two banks have noticeably different climates. This is predominantly because of the Left Bank's proximity to the ocean. This means that these vineyards tend to receive more rainfall and experience slightly cooler days during the growing season. Being cooler means that the grapes develop more acidity, which adds to their aging potential.
The sheltered nature of the Right Bank means it is less influenced by the Atlantic. This means that they tend to experience warmer days during the summer resulting in grapes that are very ripe and lower in acidity. However, it also means that the area is more prone to frost in early spring. This can have an impact on the vines and in turn, the yield for the year.
So once you have taken all these things into account, what does this mean for the wine and what you are going to want to drink?
These wines are more concentrated and high in both acidity and tannins. This makes them more complex and powerful but they often benefit from significant time to age due to their tannic nature, which is delivered by the predominance of Cabernet Sauvignon in the blends, as well as the soil, climate and terrain. This style of wine tends to have concentrated aromas and flavours of dark fruit which develop into truffle and spices with ageing.
These wines tend to be smooth, rich and easy to drink. They are much more approachable in their youth and the ripeness of the grapes means they are quite fruit-forward. The dominance of Merlot means they are less tannic but these can still benefit from ageing. This style of wine has rich aromas and flavours of dark berries, chocolate and liquorice which can develop into fresh herbs with ageing.
Famous appellations from the Left Bank include: Margaux, St Julien, Pauillac, St Estephe, Medoc and Haut Medoc.
Famous appellations from the Right Bank include: St Emilion, Pomerol and Fronsac
Examples of Left Bank Wines:
Examples of Right Bank Wines:
There are some other interesting, but potentially less important differences (if you are thinking about wine style) between the two areas. One being Chateaus.
Yes those beautiful old buildings, often seen on the label of Bordeaux wines. They very much exist and are often as beautiful as they are made to appear, but they are quite different depending on where you are. If you are hanging out in the Left Bank, you might be forgiven for thinking you had stumbled into a fairy tale in some parts. The Chateaus look more like mini castles and the vineyards stretch for miles (50-80 hectares on average). Whilst on the right, the plots are smaller and the chateaus, whilst not any less grand, are not often as imposing.
Another area that is talked about is classifications.
The 1855 classification system has barely changed since it's inception by Napoleon III in, you guessed it, 1855 and is regarded as the most important and famous classification in the world. Chateaus were named under first, second, third, fourth and fifth growths with 61 chateaus included in the list over the five categories. The Right Bank was not included but many of the now famous regions were either not producing or still in their infancy.
Roll on 100 years and the Right Bank came back with their alternative. The St Emilion classification classifies wines under Grand Crus Classés and Premiers Grands Crus Classés. Unlike the 1855 classification, this is updated every 10 years, with the next iteration due this year.
So the answer to our very first question is - yes, there is a difference. But as with everything wine related, your personal taste will shape what you favour. Enjoy tasting the difference!