A quick study of

BORDEAUX – RIGHT BANK
(St. Emilion, Pomerol, Fronsac, Cote de Castillon)

By Denny Wang, Yats Wine Cellars

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www.YatsWineCellars.com


A quick study of

BORDEAUX – RIGHT BANK

 

The question “Right bank of what?” should be answered immediately before we carry on and on about wines and other things.  Answer is the right-hand side of the river Gironde if you are looking towards the NW.  I would presume that that’s also the natural flow of the river (towards the Atlantic) so it is right-hand side going down-stream.  This includes St. Emilion, Pomerol, Castillon, Fronsac, cotes of Blaye and Bourg and more than a few satellite communes.

Geography

On the opposite (LEFT) bank lies the famous Medoc and Graves regions featuring illustrious names like Margaux, Pauillac, Pessac-Leognan, St. Julien and St. Estephe.  The Left bank is famous for its rendition of the Cabernet Sauvignon variety although every wine contains 3 to 6 different varieties in the final blend.

Grape Varieties

On the RIGHT, it is MERLOT country, or at least it is in the minds of many fans.  Less mentioned is the important role of the “other” grape called Cabernet Franc.  Its importance is greatest in the St. Emilion region where even the great Cheval Blanc often called upon it to play a dominant role in certain vintages.  In Pomerol, MERLOT is the absolute and only star of the stage.

Unlike its peers across the river most notably Graves which produce a significant amount of serious white wines, most right-bank regions are entirely red. 

One can’t generalize very eloquently about differences in the terroir of both banks of the river.  But in most cases Chateaux on both banks are faithful to the overriding characteristics of Bordeaux wine which is the fact the wines are a blend rather than a varietal.  (A “varietal” is a wine that contains only or predominantly one grape variety, like a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon or a Barossa Valley Shiraz for example.)   Archrival Burgundy for example is a single variety recipe – 100% Pinot Noir for its better reds. 

The liberty to blend and to also to vary the blend albeit usually in small proportions from year to year adds an extra variable, a dimension if you will, to the already illusive notion of terroir.   Take the awesome Cheval Blanc for example.  On a given year, the wines of this great Chateau can be predominantly Merlot as most would expect or almost 100% Cabernet Franc!  

So when we mention Bordeaux Right Bank in the context of the style of its wines, just what are we talking about aside from the geography of the Chateaux and the differences in their respective selection of a predominant grape variety?

Ranking

On the left bank, there are classifications – legal rankings – cast in stone back in 1855 for Medoc and 1959 for Graves.  Chateaux that made it to the wine’s equivalent of a hall-of-fame are bestowed a permanent title of Grand Cru Classé.  These Chateaux can lose the respect of the wine lovers if they fail to deliver quality products but there is nothing we can do as consumers to strip them of their royal titles.

Across the river on the right bank, things can’t be more different.   Pomerol doesn’t even have a ranking, official or unofficial.  “Poor” Petrus and Lafleur which command such hedonistic prices every single vintage have no official title.  Same goes for other very notable Pomerol Chateaux like Vieux Chateau Certan, l’Eglise-Clinet and La Conseillante.

In St. Emilion, things appear to be heading towards some sort of an official classification with one major breakthrough in 1955 resulting in much overdue recognition for the two superstars Cheval Blanc and Ausone as king of the hill, and another nine worthy runner ups given the 1er Crus Class B ranking.  Among them are names like Canon, Pavie, Figeac and one of my personal favorites Trottevieille.  Hundreds of remaining fine Chateaux in St. Emilion vie for the not-really-so-coveted title of Grand Cru Classe and Grand Cru.  A classification was done in 1955 and has been updated every 10 years or so.  Then something happened, as they always do, don’t they?  Big, huge scandal lead to a controversy with the 2006 update that resulted in the French courts annulling the 2006 classification.  Dark shadows loomed on the fate and recovery of the credibility of the famous but shaky St. Emilion Classification ever since. 


The long and short of these rankings is that Chateaux on the right bank have to put their money where their wines are.  Except for the elite few whose places in the totem pole are pretty much unshakeable, the remaining 99% have to fight for their places in the sun every single vintage.  Is that good or bad for the consumer?  You guessed it – good news and bad news.  The good news is Chateaux can’t use their fame to con us into paying an exorbitant price for a lousy drink.  The bad news is they are very susceptible to market forces, forcing them to be more commercial and less distinguished.  While a right bank 3rd Growth like Margaux’s Ch. Palmer can tweak its wine steadily over time to become softer and fuller on the palate, increasing the Merlot in their assemblage to help achieve that objective and never have to worry about market’s acceptance of their wines, Ch. Pavie on the other bank almost suffered a heat-stroke in 2003 when its controversially opulent wine prompted a public shoot-out amongst major-league wine critics.  Criticisms – few and far between to begin with – on left-bank Grand Cru Classé are must more tempered and subtle.   Royalty has to be accorded certain unwritten respect, privileges and forgiveness.  So the bad news is Right bank wines are reduced to acquiescence, something that doesn’t appeal to hardcore fans.  I am one of these people and I have no trouble forgiving the occasional honest mistakes and flaws if it means the producers have the leeway then to go for the occasional jackpot of a great vintage.

Merlot

Despite the latitude of blending enjoyed by wine makers, there are constraints imposed by the innate personality of the dominant grape variety which in the case of the right bank being the Merlot.   As many of you know, Merlot is similar to Cab Sauv with a few (major) differences.  Its level of tannins is lower, softer texture on the palate and has more flesh wrapping the bones. These qualities might sound friendly but they are not necessarily the stuff that produces great wines.  A mediocre Merlot-based blend will taste dry and downright boring. 


However there is one interesting aspect of Merlot that may not immediately sound, well, all that interesting.  Merlot ripens a few weeks earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon.  Big deal, so what, you ask?  No big deal really unless you are stuck in a place that is perennially threatened by late-Autumn rains.  Rain is single greatest threat to an otherwise good harvest and harvest for grapes in Bordeaux takes place in most normal years around September into October.  Rains tend to arrive around the latter half of September and the risks increase dramatically as we approach October.  Cabernet Sauvignon ripens late and demands waiting until end of September to be harvested.  Merlot can be collected a few weeks earlier.  Merlot escaped the doom of rain-soaked harvest in many years.  1967 was one such example, a great growing season all through the year but attacked mercilessly by heavy late September rains.  Right bank finished the Merlot harvest before the rains. Left bank waited for the Cab to ripen properly and took a bath. 

This actually meant that there is slightly less vintage variation on the Right than on the Left bank.  That’s not a bad thing because wine critics often generalize with their vintage ratings, pronouncing sweeping judgments like “1967 was a rain-soaked vintage in Bordeaux”.  The knowledgeable consumer benefited from these sweeping statements which drove down the prices for all Bordeaux wines, including the very successful ones from St. Emilion and Pomerol.  I don’t want to commit the same sin of over-generalization but I should speculate that good steals can more often found in lesser vintages of right-bank than in the left.

 

GREAT and SUPER vintages for Bordeaux Right Bank:

2005               2002               2000               1999               1998               1996
1995               1990               1989               1986               1985               1982
1978               1975               1967               1966               1961               1959
1957               1955               1947               1945      


 

Longevity

The  longevity of Merlot-based wines has always been questioned and if you asked 10 critics, 9 will doubt that a Merlot can manage to stand up without a cane after 15 years, and the remaining one will say “no idea really, never had one older than 10.” 

The phenol profile of the Merlot (and the Cab Franc as well) doesn’t seem to draw a picture of a wine that requires many years in bottle to mature and then go on to improve for decades beyond that.  There is a funny thing about wine makers.  With full knowledge of the weaknesses of the grape they have work with, their instinctive response is to do everything they can to make up for them using techniques and experiences at their disposal.  This is where that extra factor in that quaint notion of terroir comes into play, the x-factor being an element called “pride”.   Pride doesn’t always exist in wine making.  It is not always such a good thing especially from a business perspective but in these parts of the world, steeped in history and family traditions, some things appear to be more important than money, oddly enough. 

The basic axiom of greatness in wine is its ability to achieve a level of excellence that cannot occur without passing the test of time.  A wine maker who is content to produce wines with an early maturity window is not gunning for that sort of things.  Given the natural inclination of the grape varieties on the right bank, the sensible thing to do is probably to make good mid-term (10-20 year) wines rather than early-drinking plonk or century wines.  However, pride compels many to make classic wines with drinking windows of 15-35 years.  It just costs a little bit more to make classic wines out of Merlot than Cab, same as it for one to make soft early-drinking wines out of Cabernet. 

 

Shopping Tips for Right Bank Wines

Unless you are confined to the big names up at the top 1% in the price range which is almost always locked up safely in the wine cabinets or inside locked cellars, shopping for Right bank wines is both fun and dicey.  First of all, we have to refrain from being “label” shoppers.   Brand works to a great extent in Medoc where the Grand Cru Classé’s more often than not are really a notch up on the Bourgeois. 


To me, Right-bank shopping is very similar to shopping for Cru Bourgeois of the left bank.  You know it will be a hit-and-miss proposition but like those who play the black-jack tables in casinos, you have to believe that more experience and knowledge you have, the better are your odds.  

One thing that we should realize is that smaller producers lack the means to do as much to correct the inherent flaws of a less-than-ideal vintage.  It is probably a good rule of thumb to sticking to good vintages when shopping for lesser labels.  Take the “perfect” 2005 vintage for example.  This is a perfect opportunity for smart shoppers to top up the cellars with lesser-known Right- (and Left-) bank wines.

The fallacy of this strategy is that it doesn’t work forever.  Lesser-known labels become well-known labels much quicker than we’d like, if they are any good at all of course.  The search for new “sleepers” – an American wine term to mean really good wines priced really low for its quality – is hard.  The longer-term solution is to explore lesser-known terroirs.  For example, not everyone has heard of appellations like Côtes de Castillon, Montagne-St.-Emilion, Lalande-de-Pomerol, Canon-Fronsac and Côtes de Bourg.  Prices for the top wines in these districts are often same as those for more ordinary wines from St. Emilion and Pomerol. 

 

Food and Wine Pairing

Now that you have your good bottles, properly aged and ready to pop, what do you eat with them?  I am tempted to but shall refrain from actually saying it out loud, “nothing”.  That’s not a popular answer, so let’s forget it.  Perhaps civilization dictates that we eat while we drink and vice versa.

The more you know about what’s in your particular bottle(s), the more accurate we can select the food to accompany it.  Given that all the information we have is what’s on the label, then this is probably our best bet.


For a St. Emilion, a good pairing would be recipes featuring lamb or mushroom.   If you happen to know that the particular bottle has more Cab Franc in the blend, then the selection might shift to pasta and pizza with tomato-based sauce, chicken with wine-based sauce and grilled red meats.  Personally I always find it nice to have game with Pomerols especially if there is a bit of age in the wine.  For a 20-year-old St. Emilion, I’d enjoy it with tenderloin cooked medium-rare.   For an old Pomerol, it is time to bring out the Pheasant or a Grouse, but that’s a bit academic living in Asia.

 

Anyway, I think that should be enough for a brief profile.  More valuable information and precious knowledge can undoubtedly be found on the internet or inside the bottles that you will open and share with friends this weekend. 

 

 

 

When you have a moment, do visit me on www.YatsWineCellars.com or send me an email at wine@Yats-International.com with your thoughts, comments and note on your wines.

Cheers

Denny

 
 

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