Bordeaux - The Left Bank

Last time we explored the Right Bank of Bordeaux with its Merlot-based red blends, primarily from the appellations of Saint Émilion, Pomerol and Fronsac. Next, its over to the Left Bank.

Located west of the Gironde and Garonne Rivers, the Left Bank is also known for its red blends. The two primary appellations for red blends on the Left Bank are Médoc and Graves.  These appellations are further broken down as follows:

  • Médoc
    • Pauillac
    • Margaux
    • St-Estéphe
    • St-Julien
    • Haut- Médoc (this 'fifth' region is a receptacle for less expensive wines from Médoc that are grown outside the other four regions)
  • Graves
    • Pessac- Léognan
    • Sauternes

The Left Bank blends are based on Cabernet Sauvignon.  And, like the Right Bank, these blends may include Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot and Malbec. But typically, the Left Bank blends are comprised of 70% or more Cabernet Sauvignon with small fractions of the other, usually to soften the final product.

While the Left Bank is typically thought to have the "better" wines, they certainly have the more expensive wines.  And wines that are well suited to aging.

But sometimes these Cabernet Sauvignon blends are described as a bit bitter when young.  This is largely due to the high tannin levels in the Cabernet Sauvignon. And these wines tannins 'soften' as they age.  Some might ask "Why pay a premium for a Bordeaux that's bitter initially and then have to age it for it to be really good?"  And I suppose that's a question that can only be answered by actually experiencing an aged Bordeaux.

The Left Bank of Bordeaux is the only bank to produce white wines. And these are based on Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Muscadelle.  But the most famous white wine-producing region is Sauternes, a sub-region within Graves. These are tropical fruit flavored sweet wines made from botrytized grapes. And before you say "I don't like sweet wines" you really should give the Sauternes wines a chance. If you can afford to purchase one, that is.  These wines can easily go for $100 to $1000 for a bottle.

The sweet wines of Sauternes are extremely expensive to make, for several reasons. First, there is a lot of risk involved in leaving ripe grapes on the vines for an extended period of time to achieve botrytized grapes. Second, grape pickers must be paid to make the multiple passes through the vineyards, searching for grape bunches affected by botrytis. Third, Sauternes wines are usually aged in expensive oak barrels for 18 and 36 months. And on top of all this, there is no guarantee that botrytis will develop in the vineyards at all, since it is entirely dependent on specific climatic conditions. So, in some years, almost no Sauternes wine is produced at all.

So there's a quick look at the Left Bank of Bordeaux. And while Bordeaux is a famous wine-producing region of France, no discussion of French wines would be complete without addressing other important regions such as Burgundy, Champagne, the Rhône Valley, the Loire Valley and Chateaunuf de Pape.  And I'll get to those in future blogs.  Cheers!

Behind the Cork™ Wine of the Week - Chateau Bellegrave Bordeaux Médoc ($15)

This red blend is from Médoc which is an appellation on the Left Bank of Bordeaux in France.  Being from the Left Bank, it is a blend, predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon. This is an affordable Left Bank Bordeaux that is big and bold without being overly tannic. Great with a steak!

What is a Bordeaux Wine?

Nothing about French wine seems to be straightforward or simple. But once you get to know the various wine regions of France it becomes a bit clearer.

In the past couple of postings I've touched on the French wine region of Burgundy.  I discussed that there are Bourgogne Rouge (red) and Bourgogne Blanc (white) wines.  The reds of Burgundy are primarily Pinot Noir with the exception that the sub-region of Beaujolais produces red wines from the Gamay grape.  The Chardonnay grape dominates the white wines of Burgundy, with all wines from the Chablis sub-region being produced from Chardonnay.

So now let's take a look at the wines from another famous wine region in France, Bordeaux.  Here, more than 90% of the wines produced are reds. The primary grapes used in red Bordeaux wines are Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc. But, Petite Verdot, Malbec and Carmenere are also permitted to be used.

The white wines, again comprising less than 10% of Bordeaux's production, are made from the Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes.  This is quite a contrast to the not so distant past. Prior to the 1960's, Bordeaux's vineyards were dominated by white wine producing grapes.  Consumer tastes changed and red wine production methods improved and now we see the reds dominating Bordeaux wines.

Within Bordeaux, the geography is such that it is divided into the Left Bank and the Right Bank. The banks refer to which side of the Gironde River, or its two smaller rivers, they are located. And each of the Left and Right banks have multiple sub-regions that all produce great wines based on different grapes.

And, there is one other key sub-region in Bordeaux. It is called Sauternes and it is famous for its sweet dessert wines made mostly of Semillon grape, with some Sauvignon Blanc.

There's a lot to cover in Bordeaux. So next time we'll start exploring the sub-regions of Bordeaux in a bit more detail. For now, cheers!

Behind the Cork™ Wine of the Week - Château de Belcier ($10)

This Bordeaux is a blend of 69% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Franc and 6% Malbec.  This is very typical of the Bordeaux blends of the Right Bank with its focus on Merlot. It is from the sub-region of Bordeaux called "Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux."

As you can see from the label, it is "Mis en Bouteille au Château" meaning it was bottled at the estate or on the property of the winery. But, the "Grand Vin de Bordeaux" is an unregulated term.  It is most often used as a way for a château to indicate that this is their best wine, a step up from the second bottling.