I had worked some ten years in the wine business before I heard “Right Bank.” The unfamiliar expression turned out to be quite helpful to understanding wines of Bordeaux. In short, on the right bank of the river running through Bordeaux, the soils and climate create beautiful wines blended of Merlot and Cabernet Franc grapes. On the left bank, wine blends are dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon. Soils and climate matched up to grape varieties. Simple.
Bordeaux Made Easy
Bordeaux is intimidating–a huge area with some 20,000 producers. Compared to I think 500 in Napa Valley and about 1700 in California. Under local ordinance, up to five grapes can be used to make a red Bordeaux (in contrast to Burgundy, where Pinot Noir is the sole red variety). A Bordeaux wine is always a blend.
On either side of the river flowing through Bordeaux to the Atlantic, well-drained banks make great vineyard sites. The river splits, so there is actually quite some distance between the “banks” (and a zone between, “Entre deux Mers,” meaning ‘between two rivers’).
The Right Bank: Merlot & Cabernet Franc
On the right bank, soils and climate favor merlot and cabernet franc grapes, what Aaron Pott calls the “cool-climate” bordeaux varieties. Cooler temperatures fully develop the potential of these varieties to ripen slowly to produce complex, memorable, ageable wines. Soils consist of clay, a limestone plateau and gravel plains. Superior right-bank appellations include Pomerol and St. Emilion.
Chateau Cheval Blanc, a Cabernet Franc-led blend from St. Emilion, pops up everywhere as an icon of great French wine. Even in popular movies: in Sideways, Miles finally enjoys his prized bottle from a styrofoam cup with a White Castle burger; in animated “Ratatouille,” the talented mouse-chef serves up his prize dish to a feared critic, who–of course–orders Cheval Blanc with dinner. Petrus (merlot driven) is often cited as one of the concentrated, beautifully-balanced wines from Pomerol.
Outside of Bordeaux, one doesn’t hear the term “Right Bank” much except among Bordeaux wine collectors. Surprising, as it’s great shorthand for the confluence of soils, climate and style of these great blends. And helps you cut a challenging area in half –always a good way to start.
One California winery actually ‘trademarked’ the term Right Bank in the U.S. for exclusive use by their brand. While the wine is delicious, and I share the producer’s love of Cabernet Franc, I am perplexed that trademark rights were granted for the name of a geographic area with significance in wine. That’s like having a trademark on “East Bay.” Perhaps fear of legal infringement minimized the use of the expression in marketing by other producers (ironically making the protection somewhat self-defeating.)
The Left Bank: Cabernet Sauvignon
Cabernet Sauvignon, the second most widely planted grape in Bordeaux, is the predominant grape in blends produced on the Left Bank. Oddly, this single grape is better known in the U.S. than the tradition of blending that gave rise to its fame. Napa Valley followed a Bordeaux model, but we tweaked the model to make the story simple: one grape. American marketers at work! That’s not entirely true, as ‘proprietary red blends’ are also successful and gaining traction (Opus One, Dominus, Quintessa, etc). But through varietal labeling, the Cabernet Sauvignon grape became nearly synonomous with Napa Valley in minds of many consumers.
A cross of ancient cabernet franc and vigorous sauvignon blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon thrives and consistently makes good wines on the Left Bank and many other places in the world–including Napa Valley. French lore from the 17th Century–on the right bank anyway, according to Aaron Pott–says the cross was made to create a vine that would withstand constant flooding south of the river (the left bank). Hailed the ‘panacea grape,’ it can also tolerate heat, and therefore creates beautiful wines in many areas, including the Napa Valley’s warmest zones.
It’s all about Climate
In cooler climates, Merlot and Cabernet Franc really shine as these grapes fully express their complexity in long, slow ripening seasons. Cabernet Franc is especially sensitive to terroir. “It’s a primitive grape with a narrow comfort zone,” Rob Sinskey poetically explained at a Cabernet Franc tasting I organized earlier this year.
Overall, Right Bank wines are known for finesse, balance, great fruit concentration, long aging ability, and supple tannins. Aaron has given me a shopping list, and I’ll be organizing a tasting of Right Bank wines soon (real ones, from Bordeaux), and sharing the experience here.