Customers are afraid of the Bordeaux section because first, they figure it will be expensive, and second, they don’t understand what they are reading on the label. Have no fear. Simply put, a red Bordeaux wine is a wine produced in the Bordeaux region of France. It is the largest French wine producing area, composed of over 120,000 hectares of vineyards and producing over 700 million bottles of wine each year.
The region’s hub is the city of Bordeaux, which sits on the west bank of the Gironde River and runs from southeast to northwest on its course to the Atlantic Ocean in west central France. Just north of Bordeaux, the Dordogne River empties into the Gironde from the southeast, forming a “Y”. The Estates along the western bank of the Gironde are known as “Left Bank” and those along the east bank of the Dordogne are known as “Right Bank.” The area between the two arms of the “Y” is known as “Entre Deux Mers” (“between two seas.”)
Why do we care about all this? Here's why:
By law, only six grapes that can be included in red wines from Bordeaux—Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Carmenere. The first two are by far the largest contributors. The climate and the soils are vastly different on the Left and Right Banks—so much so that Cabernet Sauvignon grows far better on the Left Bank, and Merlot and Cabernet Franc far better on the Right Bank and in Entre Deux Mers. Consequently, Left Bank wines are Cabernet predominant and therefore more tannic, structured, and long lived as a rule (and less approachable at an early age.) The wines from the Right Bank are Merlot driven, with Cabernet Franc as an important component and much less Cabernet Sauvignon. Right Bank Bordeaux tends to have lusher fruit, somewhat softer tannins, and can be enjoyed at an earlier age. So when you come to the store, you’ll know which “Bank” of Bordeaux you prefer.
If only the label on the wine said “Left” or “Right” Bank, the world would be perfect, but that would be too easy. Instead, the label will usually indicate the appellation, and you should leave it up to your wine geek to know that Medoc, Haut Medoc, Margaux, St. Estephe, Graves, and St. Julian are all Left Bank, and Pomerol, St Emillion, and Canon-Fronsac are Right Bank. As long as you know what style you like, you will get a wine you love.
In 1855, Napolean III requested that Bordeaux wines be classified into five levels, or growths, according to the amount of money they commanded. Four first growths were named—Lafite Rothschild, Margaux, Haut Brion, and Latour. In 1973, Mouton Rothschild was added. All five of these wines are from the Left Bank and cost upwards of $1000.00 per bottle upon release. Even fifth growths which fifteen years ago could be purchased for $30.00-$45.00 now cost over $100.00. Although the Right Bank wines aren’t in this classification, Chateau Cheval Blanc, Chateau Petrus, and Chateau le Pin are still in these price ranges.
Because of these crazy prices, most of us will never get a chance to try these wines, which fuels the idea that Bordeaux is only for the rich. This is not true. Although the first through fifth growths are the most famous fifty or so wines from the Left Bank, and about twenty similar wines exist from the other side, over 8400 other Bordeaux producers remain. These “petits chateaux” produce very nice wines for $40.00, $25.00, and even $15.00. These wines express the terroir and varietal character of the appellation where they are grown and are pleasant to drink often upon the day of bottling. They don’t age like the classified growths but will improve over three or four years.
Bordeaux wines as a rule are made from rather tannic grapes and they are aged in oak, so they’re going to be tannic. Don’t look to these wines for sipping at a cocktail party or drinking on their own by the fire one evening. These are food wines. They have aromatics and flavors of red and black fruit, with solid structure and good acidity. They tend to be a bit lower in alcohol than their California counterparts. These characteristics are typical of the cooler climate in Bordeaux. Because the climate is cool, year to year variance can be marked. Time of last frost, daily temperatures, and amount and time of rainfall all have a huge influence on the quality of wine in a given year. Be sure to ask your wine specialist which vintages to avoid or look for, or which are best for drinking early or putting away for a few years.
So tonight you are having a dinner of beef, lamb, or game. Bordeaux is an excellent choice. If you want to splurge a bit and like the structure of Cab based wines, the Chateau Mongravey (Margaux) is outstanding for $44.99. The Right Bank and Merlot predominant L’Excellence des Menuts at $42.99 is drinking perfectly.
Bordeaux doesn’t have to be complicated and it certainly doesn’t have to be expensive. Wines from this area have been among the most renowned in the world for hundreds of years. It’s time you found out what all the fuss is about. You will be glad you did.
You can “bank” on it!