A tale of two river banks
Bordeaux is one of the most renowned wine producing regions in the world, famed for its complex and age-worthy wines. Since the Romans planted vines here some 2000 years ago, there has been a dynamic and innovative approach to viticulture. Today, the chateaux of the 1855 Classification and the superstars of the Right Bank remain more sought after than ever.
Although only separated by some thirty miles; the Medoc and the Right Bank are very different stylistically, historically and culturally. The left bank is dominated by Cabernet plantings, largely due to the fast draining gravel found close to the Garonne estuary. St Emilion and Pomerol are predominantly planted with Merlot and a smattering of Cabernet Franc. These varieties thrive on the limestone slopes and clay plateau found around St Emilion and Libourne.
In the Medoc one encounters imposing, fairytale Chateaux surrounded by sprawling, gravel-strewn vineyards. Right Bank estates are generally more modest, smaller in scale with more varied topography. From the flat, sandy planes south of St Emilion, to the glittering limestone slopes of the Côte, to the gravelly croupes around Figeac and Cheval Blanc – St Emilion is a diverse and complex appellation. By Bordeaux standards the vineyards on the plateau of Pomerol have to be considered elevated. Here at an altitude of 30-35 metres, one finds water-retentive clay, ideally suited to Merlot and seams of gravel, perfect for “Bouchet” (old vine Cabernet Franc).
The Medoc was classified in 1855 creating a hierarchy which is still relevant today. First growths are more sought after and command higher prices than even before. Today, one can drive the short distance from Bordeaux town to the vineyards of St Emilion in a mere 45 minutes. However, before the advent of the car, trade was reliant on the Garonne and Gironde. Therefore, although Belair and Ausone were considered to be of similar quality and shared a similar status to that of Latour, Lafite and Margaux, they were not recognised in the 1855 classification. Pomerol now enjoys a reputation as one of the most exclusive appellations in the world. Their wines are perfumed, seductive and exude breed. They boast many household names such as: Petrus, Le Pin, Evangile, Conseillante, Lafleur, Eglise Clinet and Trotanoy, however, serious winemaking is relatively new to this commune. Until the '40s, Sauvignon Blanc dominated plantings and the appellation was considered a rather poor neighbour to the more illustrious St Emilion. Generalisations are difficult to make in Bordeaux given the vast number of Chateaux, the multitude of microclimates, winemakers, soils, subsoils, grape varieties and winemaking techniques. However, given the dominance of Cabernet on the Left Bank, wines tend to be structured and require a little patience, whereas the Merlot dominated wines from the Right Bank demonstrate a fleshy, approachable character, which affords earlier drinking.
The great classified growths of the Medoc are famed for their impressive chateaux and sprawling vineyards. Although they can sometimes appear more corporate than artisanal, there is usually a passionate and knowledgeable winemaking team behind the scenes calling all the shots. Rock-star Gérants are charged with managing these estates and investing in the future. On the Right Bank there are some prominent chateaux farming on a grand scale as well as many family owned domaines, most notably in Pomerol, which are more akin in size and philosophy to the estates of Burgundy.
The ‘Appellations’ or ‘Communes’ of Bordeaux are split into large geographical areas, the most famous being: St Estephe, Pauillac, St Julien and Margaux in the Medoc, St Emilion and Pomerol on the Right Bank and Pessac Leognan in the Graves. There are also many ‘satellite’ appellations such as: Castillon, Lalande de Pomerol and Fronsac that are capable of producing excellent wines and offer value-for-money.
The two major varietals grown in Bordeaux are Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The former is synonymous with the Right Bank communes of Pomerol and St Emilion, while the latter is the grape of choice in the Medoc. Blending is integral to the wines of Bordeaux, helping to provide balance and complexity. Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot are also important varietals that can provide perfume and spice to the blender’s palette of flavours.