The Left & The Right
The glorious wine region of Bordeaux benefits from very peculiar geographical features. It is split in half by the estuary of the river Gironde, where the Garonne and Dordogne Rivers flow in, with one side looking at the Atlantic Ocean and the other at French inland.
These are the famous Left and Right Bank of Bordeaux.
“Left Bank” and “Right Bank” are the two main and most famous sub-region of Bordeaux, although a certain geographic significance is due to the “Entry Deux Mers” – literally “Between-Two-Tides” – in between the two, an area framed by the Dordogne on the North side and the Garonne on the West-South side.
The differences between the Left and the Right Bank are quite defined and they spread across culture and tradition, but are also influenced by distinctive climate and soils characteristics.
With the Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855, French Emperor Napoleon III demanded that all the wines be ranked before being displayed at the Exposition Universelle de Paris. At that time, brokers and wine merchants ranked the wines based on reputation and trading price. The Left Bank of Bordeaux is the home to all of the official 1855 Classified Bordeaux wines and, although several wine critics argue that the classification has become outdated, the so called Five Growths – the five châteaux ranking highest at the time – still live up to their high reputation in the fine wine world today.
Although not included in the 1855 Classification, the Right Bank has increased its popularity and fame thanks to the development of appellations such as Saint Emilion, which received its AOC classification in 1955, and Pomerol, home to Château Petrus that today produces among the most expensive wines in the world.
As all the wines in Bordeaux are blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet and Petit Verdot, the differences about grapes between the Left and the Right Bank is about the balance between Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot: specifically, which one dominates the other. On the Left Bank, Cabernet Sauvignon is king. But over on the Right Bank, the spotlight is all for Merlot.
The Cabernet Sauvignon centred Left Bank is close to the Atlantic Ocean and benefits from maritime climate influences, which translates in more rainfall during the growing season as well as slightly cooler days. In terms of soil, the Left Bank is characterised by vines grown on gravel: the finest wines of the region come from these vines, as they can benefit from the excellent drainage conditions the soil provides.
The Right Bank features both clay soils in the appellation of Pomerol, as well as limestone soils in the appellation of Saint Emilion, a very challenging environment for the vine who needs to dig deep to find nutrients. In terms of climate, the Right Bank experience lower rainfall being further inland, while summer temperatures are higher. Although this conditions are now more suitable for growing Merlot, climate change might pose a serious threat to this varietal choice as – over the next years – high summer temperatures might result in excessively alcoholic wines.
The combination of grape choice, climate conditions and soil profile makes Left Bank wines usually more tannic, because of Cabernet Sauvignon, hence more suitable for ageing in order the tannins to be softened. The challenging gravel soil make the grapes struggle to fully ripen, which results in high acidity. At the same time, the wines develop complexity resulting in aromas and flowers such as leather and spices to reveal themselves with ageing.
The Merlot based Right Bank wines are generally softer and juicier. They are more approachable at a younger age because they are not as tannic as Cabernet Sauvignon based ones. Furthermore, the higher temperatures result in richer aromas and flavours of dark berries. These wines are beautiful even at a more mature stage, although they don’t have the ageing potential of their Left Bank cousins.
And talking about style, also architecture display differences between these two Bordeaux regions. On the Left Bank, estates are historically bigger and the world “château” – French for “castle” – is actually quite appropriate: the average size of them is between 50 to 80 hectares of planted vineyards. On the Right Bank, we wouldn’t dare saying there are not castles around, but they are certainly less grand on average, with the biggest ones topping 30 hectares.
Defined by some wine critics as brothers of another mother, the Left and Right Bank of Bordeaux are able to explain how wines can develop distinctive features despite the amount of elements they share and the tradition they have in common.
The result of this dualism is a duplicity of style and -we dare saying – personality within Bordeaux, adding the luxury of variety to a region that already is synonym of some the finest quality wines around the world.