The Right Bank is the area to the north of the Dordogne in Bordeaux, rather than to the south of the Garonne (this is the Left Bank) or Entre-deux-Mers (the area between the two rivers). While not nearly as famous or versatile as the Left Bank, the Right Bank is important for two essential appellations that lie within it: St-Émilion and Pomerol. The prominently Merlot-based Right Bank wines can, at the top levels, match or, by some opinions, exceed, Left Bank reds in both quality and price.
Lighter, more smooth styles of red wine are produced on the Right Bank, as opposed to the layered, intense, and complex wines of the Left Bank. While houses such as Pétrus still produce very sophisticated wine, it is of an entirely different style. This is primarily due to the use of Merlot in most Right Bank wines. Cabernet Sauvignon hardly thrives on the Right Bank, and rarely makes up more than a few percent of plantings at Right Bank châteaux. This page discusses the two essential appellations of the Right Bank, in addition to other, more obscure Right Bank regions.
Just like the Left Bank and, in fact, all of Bordeaux, the Right Bank areas were greatly assisted in the 12th century by the marriage of Henry II of England to Eleanor of Aquitaine. Right after that marriage, Bordeaux wine became a commonly exported commodity, and through the Middle Ages Bordeaux wine kept growing in popularity. But not all the attention went to Right Bank wine. Indeed, at this point it was the Left Bank’s Graves that was popular among red wine buyers. Nonetheless, St-Émilion in particular made advances in the English marketplace.
The excavation of the Médoc happened throughout the 1700s, but by this time many Right Bank areas had already defined themselves for red wine sales. Eventually, the Médoc attained a superior reputation to the Right Bank areas. It was also the Left Bank that got its first classification, while the wines of the Right Bank were left behind. In 1955, St-Émilion wines were finally classified, but Pomerol wine has still never been ranked. But several châteaux from the Right Bank have become status symbols and the area’s appellations are now about as highly reputed as those of the Left Bank.
Climate and Viticulture
The weather and general climate is not too different from the Left Bank. Temperatures are warm but, crucially, there is much less of a saltwater-maritime influence on the Right Bank. This could be one of the factors that makes Cabernet Sauvignon undistinguished there, and grapes such as Merlot and Cabernet Franc in their element.
Technically, there are probably a number of reasons why the wines of the Right Bank are so remarkably different. The primary reason, as in much of Bordeaux, probably lies below the surface…literally. The soil of both St-Émilion and Pomerol has a heavy clay influence. Cabernet Sauvignon does not reactly particularly well to clay, but Merlot’s best wines are made from these soils. As a result, it’s no coincidence that the preponderance of Right Bank wines are made from Merlot.
Cabernet Sauvignon is usually fairly drab on the Right Bank, although certainly there are some good examples from less esteemed châteaux. The real stars are Merlot and, to a lesser extent, Cabernet Franc. Often considered a blending grape when made elsewhere in the world, Merlot becomes a star in many St-Émilions and even more so in Pomerol wines. One of the famous examples is Pétrus, 90% or more Merlot. Pétrus charges as much as $3,000 (new!) for their stellar wine, which is no less complex than any vicious beast of the Médoc.
No white wines are produced on the Right Bank. Botrytized sweet examples, for whatever reason, do not work, and neither of the prominent appellations has ever bothered to try their luck with dry white. As a result, the Right Bank is an entirely red-dominated area. It achieves brilliance by concentrating solely on what it does best.
In general, the wines of the Right Bank are much less highly organized than those of the Left Bank. While some prefer rigid structure even if it takes the form of a possibly outdated or inaccurate classification, it can often be far superior for the best wines to simply acquire a reputation as the best wines. There has never been a Pomerol classification for this exact reason: top Pomerol châteaux have resisted it, claiming that the reputation-based system has worked out for them. St-Émilion classifications have not gone particularly well, with the 2006 hierarchy even drawing lawsuits from burned producers. As a result, the lists on both these pages are our own and are only based on the official classifications.
The top two St-Émilion châteaux are listed below.
- Château Ausone: Since the 1980s, Ausone, which had formerly been great but unsteady, has used its premium land to cement its reputation as the best St-Émilion château. Merlot and Cabernet Franc are generally equally blended in these wines. Concentrated but balanced, with fruit and mineral flavors and a texture sometimes described as velvety, they can age for as long as any Left Bank 1er cru. Prices can be in the thousands, as they correlate with Ausone’s top reputation.
- Château Cheval Blanc: Located near Ausone, Cheval Blanc uses a similar blend and gets similar, albeit slightly softer and sweeter, more medium-bodied results. A longer history and (arguably) better aging potential are Cheval’s superiorities to Ausone, but many people prefer the style of the wine. Although still expensive, it is usually less so than Ausone.
If there were a “2er cru” designation in St-Émilion, these would be the wines likely to fall into it:
- Château Angélus: More Merlot-based than Ausone and Cheval, Angélus wines are nonetheless more structured and powerful. Nonetheless, they have a reputation for being drinkable early. Angélus bottlings are typically in the $200 range new, which is competitive for top Bordeaux.
- Château Bellevue Mondotte: Brutally powerful cult wines, made mainly from Merlot, have gained a tremendous critical reputation and also a huge price tag. For those who like their flavors, which are impressively strong and concentrated, the $200-$400 price can be worth it.
- Château Figeac: This estate, located right next to Cheval Blanc, uses 1/3 each Cabernet, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot. Perhaps due to the Cabernet, the wines are impressively powerful and concentrated, but still have a silky texture. Prices are low for the region.
- Château La Mondotte: Monstrously powerful “baby Bellevue Mondotte”, this cult wine has garnered a huge critical reputation but doesn’t jibe with the classical idea of St-Émilion. Prices are also extremely high.
- Château Pavie: This former cult wine has become quite mainstream, but still is made in a “love it or hate it” style based on huge power that, in the opinion of its detractors, is unaccompanied by the necessary refinement. Earthy, tannic, and darkly exotic in flavor, the wine is rising in price but still cheap compared to Ausone and Cheval Blanc, with which it is now almost on an equal ratings footing!
Go to the St-Émilion page to see the best producers for St-Émilion’s satellites.
The most radical example of unclassified wine in Bordeaux is Pomerol, whose wines were never classified. A number of attempts have been made to organize an official ranking system, but the châteaux’ owners have looked on these proceedings unfavorably, and none of them ever came to anything. As a result, the wine buyer must go by 3rd-party reputation alone to determine the “best” wines of Pomerol. We have compiled our own list, which appears in abbreviated form here. See the Pomerol page for a full list.
- Château Le Bon Pasteur: Recognized by the Maltese cross on its label, topped by a crown, Le Bon Pasteur’s Pomerol is almost always a good example of the appellation, if not the most expensive and luxurious Pomerol of the vintage.
- Château Clinet: An example that is powerful and rich but nonetheless soft in the classic style of Pomerol Merlot. Most vintages need a decade or so. Most of the time this one costs $100 or more.
- Château La Conseillante: A Pomerol known for being rather approachable, it is now considered versatile in flavors and drinkable at a young age. The price is fairly consistent at $150-$200.
- Château l’Eglise-Clinet: Ripe and very concentrated, in good vintages this Pomerol can be an 100-pointer. Combining power and elegance in a way rarely found anywhere outside Pomerol, the strong but subtle wines often sell for upwards of $500.
- Château l’Evangile: One of the longest histories in Pomerol plus one of the most outstanding territories in the entire Pomerol appellation equals one of the finest, most elegant Merlot-based wines this side of Pétrus. Velvety, approachable and elegant, these wines are classically made.
- Château la Fleur-Pétrus: Another rich Merlot-based Pomerol, it is not Pétrus or Lafleur but rather a nearby estate with land that once belonged to them. High-quality, classically made silky Merlot with strong but soft flavors. Prices are in the $150-$250 range.
- Château Gazin: One of the most affordable excellent Pomerols in existence, this wine is luscious but more powerful than many of its competitors. Wines are under $100, which is a bargain in this area.
- Château Hosanna: Known for its simple label bordered in blue, Hosanna is light and feminine, but nonetheless does not compromise on intensity and power. It displays great balance and finesse, but still has powerful flavors. Prices range from $150-$300, on par with the appellation in general.
- Château Lafleur: An impressively long history, which dwarfs Pétrus, is among Lafleur’s distinguishing features. Although more intense and unapproachable than most Pomerols, it nevertheless will show the known soft flavors after long periods of aging. With the right amount of age Lafleur often is very close to Pétrus in quality, and only the most trained palates might notice the difference. Very classy flavors abound. At $2,000, the 2005 rivals Pétrus in price as well as in quality, but most vintages are at least 50% cheaper.
- Château Latour-a-Pomerol: Highly elegant with a medium to full body, this feminine wine at first shows great balance and and sweet flavors, but with age becomes more powered and concentrated. Prices are fairly reasonable for the appellation.
- Château Pétrus: For many years now, Pétrus has always seemed to be a step ahead of the competition in Pomerol. It is just as sophisticated as any of the great Cabernet-based Left Bank wines, and, according to its fans, displays a luscious magic that gives it an advantage over even such houses as Latour and Haut-Brion. Either way, it has both the prices and quality of a Left Bank 1er cru. Concentrated and well-structured but not intense, the approachable, soft, and velvety-textured wine manages to combine open-knit flavors with tremendous sophistication. This wine, costing between $800 and $2,000 new depending on the vintage, has taken its place as one of the world’s most reputed.
- Château Le Pin: Nearly varietal Merlot, Le Pin comes close to Pétrus in quality. Although not everyone loves its elegant, somewhat modern offerings, the prices have risen to reflect the level of demand. At $2,000 or more, they are often higher than Pétrus.
- Château Trotanoy: Extremely high ratings can make the $250 price of the 2005, and the lower prices of other vintages, quite worth it if you’re a Pomerol fan. It is classically soft but definitely concentrated and ageable Merlot.
- Château Vieux-Château-Certan: The confusing name of this château is often abbreviated as VCC. With higher percentages of the two Cabs, this is an intense, textured Pomerol with great potential for aging. Classicists won’t love its style, but most will find that it is a fresh Pomerol that thinks outside the box. Also, the sub-$200 prices are reasonable for the appellation.
The significant regions on the Right Bank are St-Émilion, Pomerol, and Fronsac. Fronsac is less of a prominent appellation by far. The following convenient list outlines the three and the differences between them. Below them is a list of the more obscure Right Bank regions.
Cheap wines in St-Émilion and Pomerol (and by cheap we mean less than $15 or so) should be treated with some suspicion. Land in these areas is very expensive, and demand is always fairly high for good wines from these appellations. So cheap wine from there may not have the same pedigree of quality as, even, a Bordeaux AOC or a $10 American wine. Fronsac, however, is a different story, with a number of reasonably priced wines that nevertheless are likely to have good quality.
- St-Émilion: For decades, St-Émilion has provided an alternative to Bordeaux buyers who are looking for more elegance than the heavy, structured Left Bank wines can deliver. St-Émilion’s Merlot-based wines, often with a high percentage of Cabernet Franc, are dramatically different. St-Émilion has a complex classification that is constantly fought over, with the result that many people simply go on third-party ratings such as those of Robert Parker. Also important are St-Émilion’s sub-AOC communes: Lussac-St-Émilion, Montagne-St-Émilion, Puisseguin-St-Émilion, and St-Georges-St-Émilion.
- Pomerol: The only major unclassified area in Bordeaux, Pomerol has long been the home of the best Merlot-based wines in the world. Nowhere else does Merlot, usually considered a blending grape uninteresting on its own, enjoy such a high reputation and command such high prices. The best Pomerols are just as sophisticated as any Left Bank Cabernet-based offering, but display a luscious, slightly sweet perfume that, according to Pomerol advocates, is superior to the intense, full-flavored body of any other red wine in the world. Pomerol has many fans, and its reputation-based system has forced even châteaux with such land advantages as Pétrus not to rest on their laurels. The result is consistently improving wines.
- Fronsac: Fronsac AOC (originally Côtes de Fronsac) was made an AOC in 1937. Since then, it has picked up attention as an “outsider” appellation that makes high quality wine without charging price premiums. They are lusciously perfumed, like Pomerols, and sometimes are very well concentrated, reaching the level of a “poor man’s Pomerol” in their best years. Château Fontenil and Villars are good producers, selling their wines in a range from $20 to $50. Canon-Fronsac AOC, made in 1939, lies entirely within Fronsac and generally produces wines of a somewhat higher quality. Sometimes (but not always) more sophisticated in nature, these wines are very well-priced for red Bordeaux. An estate called Château Moulin Pey Labrie makes some of the leading wine in Canon-Fronsac. Enjoy wine from either of these appellations over 5-10 years.
- Côtes de Castillon: Côtes de Castillon AOC is an appellation in which wine of a similar style to St-Émilion is produced. While still fairly expensive, it is much less so than St-Émilion and provides a good way to get that style without paying the full price of the prestigious appellation. Clos l’Eglise is one of the best producers, with wine prices usually between $30 and $40. For better bargains, houses such as Château Bel-Air are good. Quality standards are generally fairly high in this AOC.
- Lalande-de-Pomerol: Lalande-de-Pomerol AOC is by no means identical to Pomerol! Pomerol wine will be labeled under Pomerol AOC only; Lalande-de-Pomerol is a significantly different area. Slightly north of Pomerol, the appellation rides on the coattails of Pomerol with a similar style. In general, the wines are much less complex, but have the same approachable, upfront, yet refined flavors and good concentration. A number of châteaux make wine of consistently good quality, two of which are de Chambrun and La Fleur de Bouard. Both of these wines cost around $40. Many châteaux produce even less expensive wine.
- Premières Côtes de Blaye: This AOC is fairly obscure and not many wines are labeled under it, but nonetheless some good values are provided. Châteaux Dubraud and Les Grands Marechaux are good producers.
- Côtes de Bourg: This area has an extremely long history, with vineyards having been planted even in prehistoric times. Although based on Merlot and usually simple and approachable in style, the best of the red wines can age for a while and sometimes display sophistication. Château Roc de Cambes is a standout in the area.
A number of other appellations exist, but most of them are fairly small and obscure. Bordeaux-Côtes de Francs is one to remember. Several of them were recently merged into Côtes de Bordeaux AOC.