Bordeaux – Left Bank Overview

Happy New Year to all of my fellow imbibers! It is hard to believe that 2018 is upon us!! As you might imagine, the end of 2017 has been a blur in the Newman abode. It turns out that parenting actually does take a fair amount of time and effort… so with that in mind all of you should probably thank your parents!! I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy it, because I do and my daughter brings me huge amounts of joy and satisfaction. But it is definitely work! So basically that is my excuse for not getting out a December letter. If you don’t like it, I don’t really care. You are getting this brilliant wine guidance for free after all!! (note it was not supposed to be free, but none of you have actually paid your subscription fees)

Ok, enough excuse making. I do hope that you all had lovely holidays and were able to make use of the last dispatch to help you select excellent pairings for Thanksgiving and other meals. I was hoping to hear some responses from readers regarding the exquisite results of my stellar recs, but as with the subscription fees these affirming words have not been sent. Alas I can only imagine that everything went swimmingly and that your friends/family etc were blown away by your selections. For those of you that follow my website (read zero) you probably saw my post on my personal Thanksgiving which was hedonistic (to borrow one of Bob Parker’s favorite words) for sure. A massive amount of high quality juice managed to find its way into my gullet and actually forced a short effort at sobriety to realign things! A few highlights included Jacques Selosse Champagne, Rene Rostaing Cote Rotie Cote Blond, Salvioni Brunello, Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape, Trapet Gevrey Chambertin 1er Cru, Huet 1er Trie Vouvray, and a 1990 Eyrie pinot noir. Yes friends, Bacchus was clearly smiling on me and pouring out this thanks, literally!

Christmas was not quite as robust in the consumption department between my financial manager having to work (no, not managing the finances of this endeavor; turns out it is easy to manage finances when there is nothing to manage) and having some company in town with another little person to attend to. We did however manage to taste some nice stuff including Arnaud Ente Mersault, Heitz Trailside Cabernet, Fourrier Chambolle 1er cru, and Lucien Crochet Sancerre. Still a solid showing if I do say so myself. I did not receive the case of 1990 Chave Hermitage or 2010 La Tache that I put on my list. I guess Santa kept the good stuff for himself…

Otherwise things here in the Wild West have been good. I can’t claim to have done too much on the adventure front recently (unless you count flying with a 4 month old?). My skis remain unwaxed and unused thus far into the season.  A sad state of affairs… And while I have recently ventured into the virtual world of cycling via Zwift, my fitness is so poor due to the pinot and parenting that my current standing in Watopia is dismal… hopefully I can resolve to amend that in the coming months, but we shall see. So since I have no other stories to lead you all astray with, lets just move forward to the topic of the month! I desperately wanted to review another region of Burgundy as we have really only scratched the surface there, but as I reviewed my prior ponderings, I saw a massive hole in the educational information! So I will put Burgundy on hold for now and we will move in the polar opposite direction to Bordeaux!!

Bordeaux and Burgundy are generally considered the epitome of fine wine. The benchmarks if you will. They are however, completely opposite in nearly every way.  I will attempt to illustrate some of the differences throughout this discussion. First, Bordeaux makes oceans of wine. Literally one chateau in Bordeaux may produce as much wine as 20 Burgundy growers combined! Bordeaux has about 120,000 hectares (that’s about 300,000 acres) under the vine and in an average vintage will produce somewhere around 75 million cases. (Burgundy produces around 15 million cases) That is a lot of wine. For this email we will focus on Bordeaux rouge (that’s red for those of you that don’t speak French) as that is about 85-90% of the production of the region, but please note that red, white, rose, and dessert wines are all produced in various areas of Bordeaux.  Another major difference between Bordeaux and Burgundy is the size of the domaine’s or chateau’s.  Bordeaux operations are generally more commercial oriented with larger properties, much more production, and often business managers or corporate owners.  While there are certainly some large negotiants in Burgundy (Jadot for example), this is the norm in Bordeaux.  I’m not implying this is better or worse, simply different than Burgundy.  I’ll leave the judging up to you.

First, let’s spend a minute on geography. Bordeaux has what is generally termed as a maritime or Atlantic climate. That’s because it is on the coast! (Burgundy you will remember has a continental climate because it is well away from the coast) As you can see on the map below, Bordeaux sits on the Atlantic coast of France. You can also see that there appears to be a large estuary and rivers that separate part of Bordeaux. I’m thrilled that you noticed that, because this in fact is quite important! The Gironde estuary/river, which then splits into the Garonne and Dordogne rivers a bit further inland, separates Bordeaux into 2 major areas. These are termed the Left bank and the Right bank. People France-wine-mapfacing northwest apparently made the terms, but you get the point. If you are moving toward the sea, the left side is the left bank and the right side is the right bank. I’ll briefly give you a bit of info on both, but we will then primarily focus on the Left Bank for today. I suspect that will give most of you more than enough to chew on for quite a while. The Left Bank of Bordeaux produces wines that are blends based on cabernet sauvignon. The Right Bank of Bordeaux produces wines that are blends of primarily merlot and cabernet franc. (I bolded that because I think it is important to know) If you don’t remember much else, remember this. Now, you may have noticed that I used the term blend regarding both banks. Yes that is correct, Bordeaux wines are blends! Essentially all of them! I’m sure you could find some tiny production wine that is 100% merlot or whatever, but for our purposes, just remember that all Bordeaux wines are blends. (Again a difference as Burgundy is either 100% pinot noir or 100% Chardonnay).

Now, let’s look more closely at the Left Bank. The Left Bank is comprised of multiple different areas. As you can see on the focused map below, various villages including St. Estephe, Pauillac, Margaux, St. Julien, Graves, Pessac Leognan, etc make up the Left Bank. The entire area is often referred to as the Médoc. You will also hear the term Haut Médoc (literally high or top Médoc) as a term for some areas of the Left Bank. The Left Bank as I mentioned makes wines based on cabernet sauvignon. There are 5 grapes that are allowed (technically 6, but in practice carmenere is no longer used); cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot, and malbec. By far the first 3 listed Bordeaux regionsare the most common in blends with very small percentages of petit verdot and malbec being used. So while cabernet sauvignon is generally the dominant grape in the blend, it may only be 50-70%. The blend generally changes year-to-year depending on the vintage conditions and the ripeness of each of the varietals allowed. Cool, wet years will generally see more merlot and cabernet franc as these ripen a bit earlier than the cabernet sauvignon. Warm years with no bad weather forcing early harvests will generally contain more cabernet sauvignon. Ok, now that you now the grapes involved, let’s move to everyone’s favorite topic, the geology of the region!!

The Left Bank of Bordeaux is primarily made up of well draining, gravelly soil. This is where the term Graves comes from, referring to the gravel that is prominent in this area. Now, this is of course a vast over simplification, but until you want to become a Bordeaux specialist, it’s probably good enough. The gravelly soil is generally nutrient poor (as with most good wine growing regions) and drains well forcing the vine roots deep into the ground to search for water and nutrients. The gravel also helps to retain heat and reflect sun back onto the plant, which helps them ripen, especially in cooler years. What lies under the gravel topsoil varies throughout the region and includes limestone, sand, clay, etc. This definitely is what makes some of the differences between the appellations and if you want to explore how a Pauillac is different from a Margaux, it will be helpful to know and I will be happy to discuss this with you over a bottle of each. However, since the general feedback I get is that none of you give a damn about the soil composition, lets move on.

One of the reasons that the Left Bank is famous is because there are famous wines made there. Yes, thank you captain obvious… seriously though; in 1855 the Medoc underwent a classification that still stands today (although the accuracy of it now is debateable). This was essentially based on the price of the wines at the time as this was considered to translate to quality. There were 5 levels created and a total of 61 Chateau’s were included. These were considered to be the best 61 Chateau’s and for the most part they are still considered the top wines of the region. Obviously there are more than 61 Chateau’s in Bordeaux, so the rest are simply not included in the “Grand Cru Classé” of 1855 and are left to fend for themselves. You will note that almost all of the wines on the original classification came from the villages of St. Estephe, Pauillac, Margaux, and St. Julien. (One major exception was from Graves – Chateau Haut Brion). These are generally considered to be the villages that produce the highest quality wines, though I would also include Graves and Pessac-Leognan as these areas have some stellar wines as well (Graves actually has a separate classification, but we won’t go there right now). The 5 wines that are the “First Growths” (Premiere Grand Cru Classé) still set the price for all other Bordeaux wines and many other regions in the world. These are among the most

Latour label
A Latour label; note the mention of the First Growth status

revered and collectible wines in the world. If you would care to share any with me, I’d be thrilled, as I have never actually tasted a First Growth wine. Interesting to note, the initial classification only had 4 First Growth’s, but Chateau Mouton-Rothschild was elevated from second to first in 1973. The other first growths include Chateau Latour, Chateau Lafite, Chateau Margaux, and Chateau Haut-Brion. I’ve attached a link to the full classification if you want to review all 61 included Chateau’s as well as more information on the classification itself from a site that I find often helpful.

These are the benchmark cabernet blends for the world and it is well worth trying a couple. Once you get away from the first growth wines, the prices actually are not terrible.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention the “Cru Bourgeois” classification as this often has some lovely value wines.  This is basically an entity that was developed by the Chateau’s that did not get included in the original classification of 1855 to say, “Hey not everyone else in Bordeaux makes shit wine just because we weren’t classed 150 years ago”.  The goal here is the included wines are judged on quality, not price.  Any chateau may apply and the wines are judged every year to see if they meet the quality standards.  This class of wines is generally considered slightly lower than the “Cru Classé” wines, but still overall high quality and generally much lower price.  Ok, that’s enough about classifications as I’m sure few of you care and none of you will remember this…

Another aspect to consider with regards to Bordeaux is vintage. Unlike many cabernet-based wines made here in the good ol’ USA, Bordeaux grapes do not always ripen well. This can result in green, herbal flavors that dominate which may not be overly pleasant (especially to those of us used to California wines). Thus, while in general I think vintage is overhyped, I do tend to pay attention in Bordeaux. That being said, the top places generally make high quality wine every year, so the “off” years can be good ways to try some of the premier names for quite a bit less. For a quick reference, the best recent vintages of Bordeaux include 1982, 1985, 1989, 1990, 1995, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2009, 2010, and 2015. 2016 has also been hailed as an excellent vintage, but none of the wines are in bottle yet.  Value vintages in my opinion include 2006, 2008, 2012, and 2014.  These were generally overshadowed, but quality overall was still solid and they wines are 30-50% cheaper than the “famous” vintages.

Ok, as we are rapidly approaching (if not already past) the end of your attention spans, lets get to some specifics on the wines. What do Bordeaux wines taste like? These wines often see significant proportions of new oak barrels, so when young you get lots of ripe dark fruit (classically cassis, blueberry, blackberry), sweet spice from the oak (vanilla, nutmeg, cocoa), and then a mélange of other flavors including tobacco, herbs, espresso, violets, crushed stone, cedar, and pencil lead/graphite. Part of the allure of Bordeaux is the complexity of the wines and this only tends to increase as the wines age. With age, the vanilla and spice notes tend to fade and become subtle; the fruit becomes less flamboyant and more along the lines of dried berries; the earthy notes such as tobacco, cedar, mint, and pencil lead become more prominent and other notes such as forest floor, leather, mushroom, and dried floral notes become more evident. I personally prefer Bordeaux wines on the older end of the spectrum, after the ripe fruit and oak notes have faded a bit to reveal the other smells. I typically don’t drink Bordeaux with less than 10 years of bottle age, and really enjoy it after 15-20. (this is simply my personal preference) The ability to age for decades is one other reason Bordeaux is often considered very collectible and adds to the allure.

With regards to pairing, as you might imagine given the grapes involved, Bordeaux generally longs for bigger meals and meats. A ribeye with a walnut bleu cheese topping is delicious; prime rib with mushrooms and horseradish; lamb chops with mint garnish; braised game meats; braised beef dishes, etc. With older wines you can get away with less robust meals and probably use pork or even other fowl. You probably want to avoid fish and seafood for the most part. I also generally don’t really like Bordeaux with pasta or tomato based dishes. Stick to the basics here and you won’t be disappointed.

Finally, we are to the time when I recommend some wines. Again, I can’t comment personally on the First Growths, but based on their several hundred year track record I’ll go ahead and recommend them.

Some of my personal favorite Left Bank wines include Chateau Smith-Haut-Laffite, Chateau Leoville Barton, Chateau Leoville Las Cases, Chateau Leoville Poyferre, Chateau Montrose, Chateau Cos D’Estournel, Chateau Carbonnieux, Chateau Haut Bailly, Chateau Haut-Batailley, Chateau Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Chateau Calon-Segur, Chateau Graud Larose, Chateau Haut Bages Liberal, Chateau Lynch-Bages, Chateau Malescot St. Exupery, Domaine de Chevalier, and Chateau Palmer.  Another wine which I will recommend based off of trying the second wine is Chateau La Mission Haut Brion.  I’ve yet to spring for a bottle of the good juice, but the second wine is excellent so I must imagine the grand vin is as well.

Some of the best values of above include: Chateau Carbonnieux (often $28-40), Chateau Haut-Batailley (often $30-50), Chateau Leoville Barton (often $40-70 and it is a Second Growth), Domaine de Chevalier (often under $50). I also like Chateau Cruzeau, Gloria, and Chateau La Fleur Peyrabon which are all good values. Another way to get some value in Bordeaux is to buy “second wines”. The famous Chateau’s generally only use about 30-40% of their grapes for the “Grand Vin”, but they certainly don’t waste the rest. Often each Chateau will make 3-4 different reds. The “second wines” , especially from the famous Chateau’s, can be an excellent wines for markedly less than the main wine. Some examples include Alter Ego de Palmer, La Chapelle de la Mission, Les Pagodes de Cos, etc. Especially in good vintages, these can be killer ways to try the famous names without going bankrupt.

Sadly this list is relatively short, because unfortunately Bordeaux is a weak spot in my tasting history and cellar. I haven’t drank a lot of it because I prefer it older, so most of the Bordeaux I’ve purchased, I’m still aging. That said, one of my top 5 wines of all time is still the 1982 Leoville-Poyferre. I drank this in 2016 and it was incredible…so while it is not my personal favorite region, it is well worth knowing about and trying. There is a reason it is one of the most famous wine regions in the world. So grab a few bottles, cellar them or try them young; better yet, do both! Let me know what you think about it

With that I will leave you to your own vinous adventures for another month (or longer). I hope you will all try some Bordeaux and let me know your thoughts!


J. “Margaux” Newman, CSW

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