One of the world’s largest, most elite and most recognized wine regions is Bordeaux. Its long, dramatic history is centered around magnificent estates like Lafite, Petrus, Mouton and Latour. Thomas Jefferson – perhaps America’s very first wine connoisseur – couldn’t stop writing about the place and its wines. If you’re a wine collector, Bordeaux and its wallet-busting First Growths are generally where much of your interest lies.
If you know very little of the region, start with the basic geography. On the broadest level, Bordeaux is split in half by the Gironde estuary which further dissects into the Garonne River – flowing directly through the heart of Bordeaux – and the Dordogne River through the upper right. Perhaps you’ve heard people debating which bank they tend to prefer when musing about Bordeaux’s wines. No, they’re not referring to an investment bank. In this case, they’re debating the right vs. left riverbank.
Vineyards extend 65 miles from north to south and 80 miles from east to west, covering nearly 300,000 acres of vines – a wine-growing area that is five times the size of Burgundy and eight times bigger than California’s Napa Valley. More than 9,000 chateaux cover the land, which is in addition to the 13,000 grape growers. But perhaps even more staggering a number is the amount of wine actually produced. Between 700-900 million bottles of wine are produced annually, accounting for 1.5 percent of the world’s total production, with red wine making up 85 percent of that total.
Wine appellations within Bordeaux (there are now 60 of them!) can be best understood by their relation to the Garonne River. Depending on which side of the river you’re on, you’ll find a different combination of soils, precipitation, elevation and weather – better known as terroir – not to mention winemaking styles, varying prices and prestige.
The combination of these unique environments on both sides of the river all work together to produce a unique grape profile with varying flavours and maddening complexity.
The right bank’s most famous districts are Lalande de Pomerol and Saint-Emilion. Other notable and somewhat pricey vineyards include Petrus, Cheval Blanc, Le Pin, Bordeaux Supérieur and Côtes de Bordeaux. The dominant grape varietal of the wines on the right bank is merlot. There are also portions of cabernet (both franc and sauvignon), malbec and some petit verdot. The clay and limestone on this side of the river does wonders for the merlot grape to grow and thrive. This chalky soil means less struggle for the grapevines as they produce smooth, soft, fruit flavours. If you’re looking for a more approachable, straightforward Bordeaux without the need for it to age too long, a right bank can be a great choice.
The left bank’s dominant grape varietal is typically cabernet sauvignon which tends to be blended with smaller amounts of merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot and even carmenere. The soils here are more gravely and rocky with limestone which produces big, bold and hearty wines. Famous, exclusive estates like Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Haut-Brion, Mouton and Margaux are on this side. Famous regions include Medoc, Margaux, St. Julien, Graves, Paulliac, St. Estephe, Haut Medoc and Pessac. If you’re seeking a wine that will age well and offer more complexity, a left bank Bordeaux will definitely be to your liking.
Like everywhere else, Bordeaux is subject to a strict classification system that governs price, prestige and quality. From the mentioned First Growths of 1855 – which remain in a league of their own – to the Cru Bourgeois, to the numerous AOC designations, Bordeaux has formalized more appellations and rules therein than any other wine region in France as well as in all of Europe (there are 450 wine appellations within the country).
If you love red blend wines, you can thank Bordeaux for that. Furthermore, thank Bordeaux for the idea that some blends can be dominated by cabernet while others merlot and taste exceptional one way or the other. This ‘original’ region was arguably the source of inspiration to many of today’s most popular wines. (Case in point: There would be no such thing as an Italian ‘super Tuscan’ wine if Bordeaux wines weren’t so prestigious.) These are the wines that any wine lover, or wine maker for that matter, can truly bank on.
Chateau Lassegue 2010 (Saint-Emilion)
This is a (right bank) property that was purchased in 2003 by Jess Jackson of the Jackson Family Wines conglomerate. The estate is not new, however. Vines for this wine are aged between 40 and 50 years. There’s 65 percent merlot here, which gives the wine its softness and notes of black fruit and a mineral core. The balance of the blend is made up by cabernet franc (20%) and cabernet sauvignon (15%) – which lends strength, structure and notes of cassis and spice. Although structured to age well into this decade, there’s really no sense in waiting too much longer to drink this one. Decant and enjoy. ($79.95)
Chateau de Lamarque 2014 (Haut-Médoc)
This 38-hectare (left bank) estate produces wines from vines dating as old as the 15th century. The blend here is 45 percent cabernet sauvignon, 45 percent merlot and 10 percent petit verdot. It’s full bodied and very silky – thanks to the rather generous portion of merlot. The merlot component has also tipped this wine towards being fruitier than a typical left-banker, with some tart cherry on the mid palate. Chocolate and leather notes round out the finish. It should drink nicely over the next 3-4 years. ($38.95)
Château Faizeau 2012 (Saint-Emilion)
The word Faizeau is in reference to the Benedictine abbey of Faize, situated next to this 12-hecatre property. Built on the highest point in the region of Libourne, this (right bank) Château is one of the oldest estates of Bordeaux. The vineyards here boast a magnificent terroir and privileged location on a plateau. Merlot is the number one grape here, and it comprises 94 percent of the blend (cabernet franc makes up the remaining 6 percent). The wine is delightfully fruity, spicy and complex, offering plummy jam scents with cedar and vanilla notes. ($32.95)
Chateau du Cartillon 2012 (Haut-Médoc)
Located halfway between the Margaux and Saint-Julien vineyards in the heart of the Haut-Médoc appellation (left bank), this 69-hectare Cru Bourgeois status property was once owned by Monsieur Alexandre de Bethmann, who was Mayor of Bordeaux from 1867 to 1870. The wine is dominated by merlot (65 percent!), with 10 percent cabernet sauvignon and 25 percent petit verdot. It’s got juicy black currant fruit highlighted by a bright acidic backbone. Cedar and coffee notes add even more layers. ($30)
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