Left Bank, Right Bank – There’s Nothing Boring ’bout Bordeaux

Next up in Wine-Ucation is none other than Bordeaux Wine.  Bordeaux is a label that can be given to any wine made within the Bordeaux region of France…centered around the city of Bordeaux.  Makes sense to me.  Most people in the U.S. immediately attribute the name with a red blend (a Left Bank or Right Bank).  The truth is, any wine made in the region can tout the name.  White, Rose’, Sparkling, etc.  It matters not.  So, what’s this got to do with Virginia?  Well, that’s what I’m here to explain.

I’m going to focus on Bordeaux in terms of the red blends.  This style of wine is made up of 5 grapes; Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot.  In the past, Carménère was the 6th Bordeaux grape, but it is seldom used these days.  The interesting thing we can see from the 5 Bordeaux grapes is that 4 of them are prominent here in Virginia, that being Cab Sav, Cab Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot.  

What about Malbec?  Well, that’s interesting on its own and a totally different subject, but I’ll give you the quick version.  In Bordeaux, the amount of Malbec being grown is continuously in decline and is seen less and less each year.  Especially in Bordeaux wines.  Why?  It’s simply a pain to grow and grow well.  It is vulnerable to frost, downy mildew, bunch rot, and coulure.  

When people think Malbec, they most often think the Mendoza region of Argentina where the grapes can grow at high altitudes, in clean air, tons of sun and minimal precipitation.  If you want to learn more about Malbec, there’s a short article published in the Washington Post back in 2004 called, “Where Malbec Does Best,” that you can read to get a little more detail.

So…back to Bordeaux.  

Some Virginia wineries decide to exclusively use a single grape, or a high enough percentage of it, in some of their wines.  Perfect examples just happen to be recent Wines of the Week in our Virginia Tasting Notes section, check it out!  Some other wineries do a blend of these and that’s when you’ll hear a pourer at a winery say that their wine is a Bordeaux style blend.

Ready to go to the next level?  How about we discuss the difference between a Left Bank and Right Bank Bordeaux?  Of course, it had to get a little more complicated, otherwise, it wouldn’t be fun. 🙂  Bordeaux blends are often referred to as either a Left or Right Bank.  Why?  What’s the difference?  And what Bank are they talking about?  BNP Paribas or SocGen…ok bad joke (I actually had to look up the names of some of France’s largest financial institutions for that).  Let me try to explain…

Wine referred to as Left Bank Bordeaux are those that lie west of the Gironde Estuary and the Garonne River, or if looking at it on a map, it’s the left side.  Right Bank blends Bordeaux-Mapare those to the East of the estuary and the Dordogne River.  What’s an estuary you ask?  Simple enough, it’s that area where a river(s) meets the sea.  In the Bordeaux region, the Garonne and Dordogne Rivers meet to form the Gironde Estuary which connects to the Bay of Biscay.  Since pictures are worth a thousand word, see the picture from Olooney’s Wine & Liquor!  

I know someone might ask…what about that sliver in the middle of the two banks? That has its own name…Entre-Deux-Mers.  This is a totally different subject, but they primarily make white wines there.

Now a little more about each bank…

Left Bank wines are Cab Sav dominant, with Merlot, Cab Franc, and/or Petit Verdot added for some additional complexity.  Right Bank wines are Merlot dominant and with the same suspects filling in.  So why the difference on opposites sides of the estuary?  The left side is rockier and the limestone deep, while the right is less rocky with limestone closer to the surface.  Cab Sav does especially well on the left and produces the big reds with high tannins.  Merlot grows well on both sides and on the right helps produce smooth wines, lower in tannin, and drinkable in its earlier years with little to no aging.

So, Virginia wineries mimic the styles by blending similar combinations of the same grapes grown here.  Hopefully, this offers a clearer understanding as to why a lot of Virginia wineries describe their blends as a Bordeaux style and sometimes with a respective bank.  

Wait…what?  You want me to complicate it a little more?

Okay, one last thing…in Virginia, you will often see the wine style “Meritage.”  Simply put, this is a made-up name California wineries created to describe their Bordeaux style blends as they couldn’t use the Bordeaux name being that their wines were not produced there.  Additionally, there’s a Meritage Alliance out there with a plethora of information on the name as well as the guidelines that require meeting in order for the bottle to have the Meritage name on it.

And…with that…my bottle’s empty, and this episode of Wine-Ucation complete.