The key to Bordeaux is the river. Without the River Garonne (and the River Dordogne, which joins the Garonne downstream of Bordeaux to form the Gironde) there would be no port, no city and no reason for the vineyards of the Médoc to have been planted in the first place. The only reason that the Médoc was planted (and it had to be drained first; it’s about as low-lying as you can get) was because its wines, being closer to the port, could be got to market before those from further upriver.
The ever-thirsty market in question was of course England, which ruled Bordeaux from 1152 to 1453. England created claret; no wonder we still drink so much of it. But not just England. A quick look at the names of the owners of châteaux and merchant houses – Palmer, Schröder & Schÿler, Barton – shows that Bordeaux and the Médoc have been an international hub, cosmopolitan and prosperous, for centuries.
But that’s the Left Bank of the river. The Right Bank has a different history. Lacking easy links with the port of Bordeaux it tended to send its wines northwards, to Belgium and the Netherlands. The difference is still tangible: the Left Bank, which means the regions of the Médoc and Graves, Sauternes and Barsac, are the places to find grand, turretted châteaux, vast vineyards and, nowadays, efficient PR teams to welcome you in lieu of the owners, who are probably attending to their business affairs in Paris.
The Right Bank – primarily St-Emilion and Pomerol, but also some satellite regions like Lalande-de-Pomerol, Lussac-St-Emilion or Côtes de Castillon – are the places where the owners themselves will welcome you into what are seldom much more than comfortable farmhouses. The vineyards are smaller, the smell of money less overt.
But don’t be deceived. The Right Bank may seem more paysan, as one proprietor puts it, but these days prices for the top Right Bank wines can outpace even the most expensive offerings from the Left Bank. Scarcity is one reason – those small vineyards – but the main reason is the fondness of one Robert Parker, an American wine critic of enormous influence, for the juicy, rich, fleshy styles of the Right Bank.
A Word On Grapes
The Right Bank wines are richer and softer because the grapes are different; and the grapes are different because the soil is different. The Left Bank is gravel; the more gravel, the better the vineyard. It’s been deposited there by the river over millennia and it makes the soils better drained and therefore warmer: wet equals cold, whether you’re a vine in a Bordeaux vineyard or a London commuter in a December downpour. Warmer, well-drained soils mean that the Médoc and Graves can grow Cabernet Sauvignon, which is relatively late ripening, but needs to ripen fully for its assertive tannins to be soft and supple.
The Right Bank, with a higher proportion of colder clay soil (often with limestone), can very seldom ripen Cabernet Sauvignon. Instead it focuses on the earlier-ripening Merlot, which gives fleshier textures and has a softer, richer structure, and adds the attractive, perfumed Cabernet Franc, which also ripens well here, for structure and acidity.
The Left Bank also grows Merlot and Cabernet Franc (and sometimes a touch of the structured, dark, perfumed Petit Verdot too), but traditionally Cabernet Sauvignon has dominated. Growers are tending to plant more Merlot these days, to cater for the fashion for more supple, earlier-drinking wines; but Cabernet Sauvignon still defines the firm, blackcurrant-scented wines of the Left Bank, Merlot those of the Right Bank.
But of course all Bordeaux wines are not equal. All the major regions except Pomerol have their own classification, with that of the Médoc being the most famous. In 1855 the 61 wines of the Médoc – mostly from the top appellations of Margaux, St-Julien, St-Estèphe, Pauillac, Moulis and Listrac – were divided into five ‘growths’, named, with minimal imagination, First, Second, Third and so on.
It includes, in the top group, just one wine from the Graves, Haut-Brion. And in 1973 Mouton-Rothschild was promoted from Second Growth to First Growth. That’s it; no other changes. Below the Classed Growths are the Crus Bourgeois, which vary hugely in quality: some equal the Classed Growths, while others are not worthy of the name.
Most of the Classed Growths are very expensive; the top ones are very, very expensive. Wines like Lafite, Latour, Margaux, Mouton-Rothschild and Haut-Brion on the Left Bank (not forgetting great Sauternes like Yquem), or Pétrus, Le Pin, Cheval Blanc and Ausone on the Right Bank, are blue-chip investment wines, drunk only by the few. But there is an abundance of other wines, both reds and dry whites (made from Sauvignon Blanc with some Sémillon), sweet whites (if Sauternes is too pricy, try Monbazillac) and even rosés, at prices that range from everyday to special occasion. A veritable river of wine.