Left Bank

The Left Bank of Bordeaux is defined as the land around the city of Bordeaux that is south or west of the river Gironne, as well as south or west of its tributary, the Garonne. Although the Left Bank is not necessarily a better place to find wine than the competing Right Bank, the classification system is more logical and organized. More, if not necessarily better, famed wine villages exist, and the region has a longer and more established history. That being said, fans of the rich but light-bodied Merlot-based style found on the Right Bank will scarcely find the Left Bank wines as interesting.

While it is well-known for the full-bodied, varied wines of the Médoc, which is considered by many the world’s best place to find red wine, the Left Bank also includes the slightly less esteemed Graves. Graves’ subregion Pessac-Léognan makes several of the best reds in France, but also within Graves the golden-yellow, botrytized legend Sauternes is considered the best sweet wine in the world. This makes the Left Bank also a better place than the Right Bank to find white wine, as almost no white is grown in the latter area.

This page mainly serves as a intermediate page between the Bordeaux page and either the Médoc page or the Graves page. It discusses the specific climatic differences between the Left Bank and the Right Bank, and why full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon is more suited towards the Left Bank. Also, the major producers and major subregions of the Left Bank are covered.

History

While wine was developing in the early days, the Bordeaux area was greatly helped by the marriage of English king Henry II to Eleanor of Aquitaine. Early wine producers immediately learned of the profit to be made, and the Left Bank was mainly focused on at that time. The Right Bank, at that time, went largely unappreciated.

It is worth noting, though, that not Médoc but Graves has the long history that is often attributed to Bordeaux. Growers, when they found that Graves produced good wine, were satisfied with what they had. It was only in the 17th century that regional changes made the Médoc a viable wine area. Soon enough, the Médoc had overtaken Graves and by the 1855 classification only one Graves wine was included (true, as a first growth). Today, Médoc’s reds still generally overshadow Graves’ reds, although the latter have many fans as well.

Climate and Viticulture

It is a commonly cited fact that the Left Bank’s specific climate and soil make it a perfect match for the Cabernet Sauvignon grape. On the Right Bank, a different soil environment makes Merlot the top grape. But the technical reason why Cabernet thrives on one side of the Gironde, and Merlot on the other, can be rather evasive.

A generally cited, and probably accurate, analysis is that the Right Bank of Bordeaux, especially St-Émilion, has more of a clay makeup in the soil. Cabernet Sauvignon does not do as well with clay, and as a result prefers the slightly different, sandstone-like soil of the Left Bank. Also, the soil is harder and less porous on the Left Bank, which goes well with Cabernet.

For more details about the weather and general climate in Bordeaux, see the Bordeaux page.

Grape Varieties

As mentioned earlier, Cabernet Sauvignon is specifically adapted to the Left Bank climate, so the red wines of the Left Bank are usually based on a large amount of Cabernet Sauvignon (often 70% or more.) Merlot is often used to soften the Cabernet, but it is rarely allowed to make up the majority of the blend. In the instance of Graves, some of the wines use Cab and Merlot in roughly even proportions. Other grapes include Cabernet Franc and a usually low percentage of Petit Verdot.

Just like in the rest of Bordeaux, Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon are the main white grapes. Sémillon, however, reaches unrivaled heights on the Left Bank. The sweet wines of Graves, such as Sauternes, are made up of usually at least half Sémillon, which contributes its unique flavors to the blend. To a lesser proportion, Muscadelle is used in some Sauternes blends.

 

Major Producers

Although many people think that the 1855 classification is outdated, it at least provides a reasonable way of determining what the biggest and most famous players are. Classifications for the Left Bank have a longer history and are more logical than those of the Right Bank. In fact, the Médoc, Graves, and Sauternes all have their own classifications.

Médoc’s landmark 1855 classification divided the wine produced there into 5 levels, the 1ers crus, 2ers crus, 3ers crus, 4ers crus 5ers crus. The 1ers, which are basically the créme de le créme, are listed here.

  • Château Haut-Brion: Despite its Graves location, this exceptional wine was honored in the Médoc for its unique flavors. Haut-Brion has remained deserving of its status since the classification.
  • Château Latour: A solid, particularly heavy Pauillac that embodies the flavors the region is known for. Although a tough wine to get into for laymen, Latour is an acquired taste that is highly respected in the wine world.
  • Château Lafite-Rothschild: At $1,000 or so new, these wines may not compete on pricing, but the winery has the best land in Pauillac. Thanks to branding, this château is firmly associated with high-level Bordeaux, and it deserves its status.
  • Château Mouton-Rothschild: The other Rothschild house doesn’t have quite as ostentatious an image, but their wines can be just as excellent–and often just as expensive. One of the special features is the famous artwork appearing on each bottle.
  • Château Margaux: Slightly lighter than the Pauillacs, this wine is remarkable enough to carry the name of the village that is its location. With beautiful grounds and famously complex wines, it is a very deserving 1er cru.

The 2ers Crus are less exclusive but still considered among the best wine worldwide.

  • Château Brane-Cantenac: A Margaux that has gone from good to great in recent years.
  • Château Cos d’Estournel: Owning probably the best vineyards in St-Estèphe, this winery is the best in that appellation and one of the top 2ers crus.
  • Château Ducru-Beaucaillou: The most often cited example of St-Julien’s famous cedar flavor.
  • Château Durfort-Vivens: A solid buy that may even be found for decent prices.
  • Château Gruaud-Larose: Not quite up to Ducru standards, but these wines offer a unique interpretation of St-Julien.
  • Château Lascombes: Outside of Château Margaux, one of the best châteaux in that region.
  • Château Léoville-Barton: The most widely known of the three Léovilles (all of which are located in St-Julien), this rich, tannic wine can rival the 1ers in complex elegance.
  • Château Léoville-Las Cases: Despite inflated prices (sometimes even higher than Léoville-Barton), this wine’s rich intensity makes it popular and commonly available.
  • Château Léoville-Poyferré: Providing a typical St-Julien, the third Léoville does not carve out any niche of its own, but offers reasonable prices.
  • Château Montrose: These rich, flavorful wines can be as powerful as anything produced in St-Estèphe.
  • Château Pichon-Longueville: This “poor man’s Pauillac” is nowhere near cheap, but offers the esteemed flavors of that appellation without an astronomical price tag.
  • Château Pichon-Longueville-Lalande: Although slightly more expensive than the other Pichon, this wine still offers Pauillac character for a relative bargain.
  • Château Rauzan-Gassies: This Margaux has fallen behind since 1855, but can still provide good flavors in the good vintages.
  • Château Rauzan-Ségla: Consistent but less unique than the top Margaux wines, this wine is a good way to taste the typical flavors of that appellation.

Go to the Médoc page and the specific village pages to see more specific discussions of these wines, as well as the full list including the 3ers, 4ers, and 5ers crus.

Pessac-Léognan, which is a higher-end part of Graves, has its own classification. The top wines are listed here; go to the Pessac page for a more detailed discussion of each ranked wine and the full list.

  • Château Couhins-Lurton: This château produces excellent dry white wine in an area where that style is very unpopular. As a result, this rather renegade producer deserves to be listed among the best of Pessac’s wines.
  • Château Haut-Bailly: The red wine (some white also) is always good, but can be outstanding in good years. Its consistency is thanks to very solid vinification techniques and a long history.
  • Château Haut-Brion: This wine is so good that the Médoc classifiers even included it, despite the fact that it is located in Graves. Flavors are unusual and usually the most complex in the appellation.
  • Château La Mission Haut-Brion: Aside from the stellar Haut-Brion, this extremely forceful wine can often be the best in the area. In some years some critics have even considered La Mission superior.
  • Château Pape-Clément: Less intense red wine is produced here, as well as some white wine. Again, a long history and good technique have brought this château to the top.

In the Sauternes area of Graves, Yquem was singled out as a Superior wine.

  • Château d’Yquem is probably the best sweet wine in the world, with good vintages able to last more than 100 years and offer undescribably luscious flavors when drunk at any point during their development.

Not everyone can afford the $1,000 price tag commanded by Yquem. The runners-up are also extremely good, and can be found for lower prices. The full list is found on the Sauternes page, but here is a sampling of good Sauternes.

  • Château Clos Haut-Peyraguey is usually one of the best Sauternes.
  • Château Guiraud is very expensive, but differentiates itself with slightly less rich flavor.
  • Château Rieussec strives for the same flavors as Yquem without ever rivaling it, but the price is often as much as 90% lower.

More in-depth region pages will give you more information about the top wines.

Subregions

The Left Bank is a “container region”—it is not an AOC of its own, but a number of Bordeaux’s AOCs do lie within it. The Left Bank consists of the Médoc and Graves. The following list, set up for convenience, outlines the two and the subregions within them. Wines made in the Left Bank that do not fall under either of these appellations, or any of the appellations within them, likely are low-level Bordeaux AOC or something like that. A number of second wines (often noncompliant wines produced by large châteaux and sold for high prices) fall under this category.

However, as a result of the immense popularity of wine from the Left Bank, and Bordeaux in general, most of the desirable land has been bought up and wine made there is being sold at high prices. The savvy buyer should be fairly suspicious of a very cheap wine produced in either of these appellations, as these wines may come from estates with unfavorable land. It may be simpler to just buy Bordeaux AOC wines than to try to find bargains on the Left Bank.

Click on any of the links to be brought to that page.

  • Médoc: The Médoc contains the most full-bodied wines in France, and possibly in the world. Tannins are kept high by a high percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon. These wines are often bitter at first but open up with age. One of their main assets is the fact that they are extremely long-lasting. Médoc contains several regions, the most well-known of which are the four small villages that make some of the world’s greatest Cab.
    • Pauillac: The dense, deep wines of Pauillac are the best and most expensive of the Médoc. In fact, three of the top five 1ers Crus are Pauillacs, a considerable achievement for such a small village in area. With few exceptions, these wines are a tad above the other villages in power, and can often last 20-40 years or more.
    • Margaux: The château that carries Margaux’s name is the most famous of the wineries here, and is one of the 1ers crus. Margaux offers a lighter, more silky alternative to Pauillac. Margaux has many 2ers crus that also deliver the magic, unlike the more exclusive Pauillac.
    • St-Estèphe: Differentiating itself with higher percentages of Merlot than the other villages, St-Estèphe has special, intriguing flavors epitomized by the only 2er cru, Château Cos d’Estournel.
    • St-Julien: Although they do not have any 1ers crus, St-Julien is very famous for its distinctive “cedar” flavor and the amazing ageability of their wine. All three Léoville houses are located here.
    • Haut-Médoc: Haut-Médoc is a receptacle for less expensive wines that are located in the Médoc, but not in any of the four highly desirable villages listed above. Sociando-Mallet is one producer transcending the appellation.
  • Graves: Wine from Château Haut-Brion from Graves was so good that it was included as a 1er cru in Médoc despite the fact that it was not even located there. Since 1855, however, Pessac-Léognan has broken off from Graves and only less expensive and desirable wines now fall under the Graves region.
    • Pessac-Léognan: Highly priced wines such as Château Haut-Brion (the 1er cru from Graves) broke off from Graves to form this more exclusive westerly AOC in 1987. Using a higher percentage of Merlot than the Médoc, the wines are structured and concentrated but less closed-off in their youth than Médoc wines.
    • Sauternes: Sauternes is among the few wine regions in the world that needs no introduction. Their luscious, tropical fruit-flavored sweet wines, according to a vast preponderance of tasters and critics, are the best of their kind. Produced from botrytized grapes that require a laborious, exacting vinification process, Sauternes is also at least as expensive as Left Bank reds. Château d’Yquem is considered the best purveyor of these flavors.