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The Banks of Bordeaux

In Bordeaux, several of the most famous sub-appellations have their grape-growing regimen defined by a river – specifically, the Gironde River.

Picture yourself on a boat chugging along the Gironde, heading northwest and then on out to the Atlantic Ocean. Look to your right, and you’re spying an area generally referred to as the Right Bank. Look to your left, and you are gazing upon what’s known as, yes, the Left Bank.

The Right Bank includes the St.-Emilion and Pomerol districts. The Right Bank encompasses numerous villages and vineyard areas, including Pauillac, Margaux, St.-Julien and St.-Estephe.

There may be very small differences in climate between the Right Bank and Left Bank, but not so much that scientists or agriculturists would recommend growing one variety of grape over another. Generally speaking, what can be grown well on one side also can be grown successfully on the other.

Yet the wines produced on the two sides of the Gironde are quite different.

On the Right Bank, a vast majority of the blends are based on Merlot or Cabernet Franc. They’re quite supple and can be enjoyed within just a few years of their vintage.

On the Left Bank, Cabernet Sauvignon is the dominant variety, and it’s quite common to see three or four other varieties included in the cuvees. These are bigger, bolder wines that are built to age.

Cabernet vs Merlot from

While all of the Left Bank wines are usually blends, Cabernet Sauvignon is the dominant force here. Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc tend to play supporting roles.

As ever in the wine world, there are exceptions. Château Clarke in Listrac-Médoc, for example, considers its soils more suited to Merlot in general. Its 2018 grand vin is 70% Merlot and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon.

The terroir is mostly flat with gravel topsoil and limestone underneath, although the composition can vary substantially from one vineyard to the next.

Wines typically have more tannin and a bigger overall structure than their Right Bank counterparts. Pauillac, in particular, has a reputation for producing powerful, muscular wines.

Right Bank wines are predominantly Merlot-based, with Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Petit Verdot used as blending components. Some estates have sought to increase their use of Cabernet Franc in recent years, for its ability to deliver freshness in the glass.

The terroir is comprised of a limestone surface with less gravel and more clay. It’s mostly flat with smaller vineyard plots than on the Left Bank, most notably in Pomerol. Estates manage an average holding of five hectares in size, while some Left Bank estates are more than 100ha.

The wines tend to be rich in fruit, softer in mouthfeel with less tannin and acid. While some top wines can be aged for many years, there are plenty of wines that are also enjoyable when young.

In early 2021, France’s national appellation body, INAO approved the use of six new grape varieties in Bordeaux, as part of efforts to combat climate change. However, not all appellations are able to use them, and they will most likely be used in AOC Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur, Entre-deux-Mers and the Côtes de Bordeaux wines.

Left vs Right bank Bordeaux: Vintages

Top Left and Right Bank Bordeaux châteaux can produce extremely long-lived wines, particularly in the right vintage conditions.

You may sometimes hear critics speak of a ‘Right Bank’ or ‘Left Bank’ vintage, depending upon whether conditions have favoured later-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, which tends to ripen earlier.

However, the situation is often more complex, and can depend upon many variables, from soil types to cellar management. Plus, weather does not always neatly divide itself between the two banks.

1855 Classification vs St-Emilion Classification

There are several classification systems at play.

With close to 125,000 hectares of vineyards and as many as 60 separate appellations, Bordeaux is one of the most highly classified wine regions in the region.

We can’t do justice to the whole system here. But, alongside the appellation map, the Left Bank is home to the official 1855 Classification of the Médoc.

It’s a five-tier hierarchy, led by the five ‘first growths’ of Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Latour, Château Margaux, Château Haut-Brion and Château Mouton Rothschild.

Haut-Brion was included in the original 1855 list, drawn up for Emperor Napoleon III, even though it sits in Graves. Mouton was promoted to the top tier in 1973.

There are then second, third, fourth and fifth growth estates.

Further south, Sauternes producers also got a classification system in 1855, devised alongside the one in Médoc as part of celebrations around the Exposition Universelle de Paris that year. Producers were split into first and second growths – or Premiers and Deuxièmes crus classés – but Château d’Yquem was given special dispensation as a ‘Premier Cru Supérieur’.

The Left Bank is also home to the Cru Bourgeois classification, which was recently relaunched as a three-tier system. A classification for dry red and white Graves wines was devised in 1953 and finalised in 1959. It includes 16 cru classé estates, all of which sit inside the Pessac-Léognan appellation today.

On the Right Bank, you’ll find the St-Emilion Classification, first introduced in 1955.

Unlike the 1855 Classifications, this ranking is frequently reviewed, currently every 10 years. The most recent ranking was released in 2012, although it has been followed by several years of legal disputes. The next one is due in 2022.

In the 2012 list, 82 estates were divided into 64 Grand Cru Classé estates and 18 Premier Grand Cru Classé properties – themselves separated into ‘A’ and ‘B’ rankings. Château Angélus and Château Pavie joined Ausone and Cheval Blanc as Premier Grand Cru Classé A estates in 2012.

Beyond this, you will also see bottle labels stating ‘St-Emilion Grand Cru’, which is an appellation.

Originally published in April 2020 and update in April 2021.

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