Five Ways of Looking Two Ways at Red Bordeaux
By Charles M. Bear Dalton
It has been said that all people can be looked at two ways: those who look at everything two ways … and those who don’t. I don’t … but I do think there are several good ways of looking two ways at Red Bordeaux. While Bordeaux seems fairly easy to understand (at least when compared to Burgundy or what your spouse is actually mad about), the Bordeaux landscape has gotten a bit more complicated in recent years. The choice of wines and wine styles produced has gotten larger. With our global economy, there are more Bordeaux red wines now available in the US. With the many sources of information available about wines from Bordeaux (and everywhere else in the world), there is now demand for wines that never before were imported to the US. By using these five ways of looking two ways at the red wines of Bordeaux, I hope to bring clarity without oversimplification.
You can look at Bordeaux as Cabernet vs. Merlot, as Left Bank vs. Right Bank, as Cru Classé vs. Petite Chateau, as Wines of Balance vs. Wines of Extraction, or as Haves vs. Have-Nots. Each way of looking at Bordeaux is a bit different and to really understand Bordeaux, they all must be taken into consideration.
For example, most people think “Left Bank” means Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant and “Right Bank” means Merlot dominant. “Left Bank” also seems to mean traditional Cru Classé wine making and may tend to mean balanced, more terroir-driven wines. By the same token, “Right Bank” seems to mean small (or at least smaller) production (if not garagista) and more extracted. That’s fine as long as you remember Ch. Cheval Blanc is a big rich (definitely a “have” and definitely part of the establishment) chateau on the Right bank with a high proportion of Cabernet Franc planted that makes super elegant, ethereal wines that defy the common modern Right Bank notion. And that Ch. Marjolia in Margaux (on the Left Bank) is a tiny garagista, outsider operation that seems more Right Bank in style. As long as you remember that it is never as simple as just two views, it can be useful to look at each contrast individually.
Cabernet Sauvignon vs. Merlot
Until the 1980s, when most Americans thought of Bordeaux they focused on the famous “Left Bank” Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant wines such as Chx. Lafite, Latour, Margaux, Haut Brion, and Mouton. Many talked about them but maybe a bit fewer had tasted them because those famous first growths have never been cheap. While Cabernet Sauvignon (at 61,750 acres planted) is only the second most planted red grape (after Merlot at 98,800 acres planted) in Bordeaux, it is the grape that dominates the wines of the most prestigious chateaux of the Medoc and Graves. North of the city of Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon grows best in the sort of gravelly soils found in the famous Haut Medoc appellations of St. Estephe, Pauillac, St. Julien, and Margaux as well as the Haut Medoc villages nearby. Cabernet originated and does very well in the gravelly Graves areas south of Bordeaux, particularly around Pessac and Leognan (which give their names to the upper Graves appellation Pessac Leognan) and especially Talence (home of Chx. Haut Brion). Cabernet Sauvignon is blended with Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petite Verdot and, only very occasionally, Malbec and Carmenere. Cabernet Sauvignon gives the wines of the Medoc their distinctive dark berry and cherry fruit, herbal tobacco note, and classic medium-weight elegance. Complexity and richness comes from blending in heavier, fleshier Merlot, more subtle Cabernet Franc, and in the years when it ripens, dark rustic dusty blackberry Petite Verdot.
Virtually all the rest of the red wines of Bordeaux are dominated by Merlot. With the exceptions of a couple of vintages Ch. Cheval Blanc and Vieux Ch. Certan, I don’t think I’ve ever tasted a red Bordeaux that was even 45% Cabernet Franc. The most famous Merlot-dominated appellations are St. Emilion and Pomerol. More recently popularized Merlot-dominated areas include Cotes de Castillon, Canon-Fronsac, Lalande de Pomerol, Cotes de Francs, and the St. Emilion satellites of Puisseguin-St. Emilion, St. Georges-St. Emilion, Montagne- St. Emilion, and Lussac-St. Emilion. Lesser-known but increasingly important Merlot-dominated areas include the Cotes de Bourg and Cotes de Blaye. Unknown to many (and largely unspecified), most of the rest of the red wines of Bordeaux including almost all that are labeled Bordeaux, Bordeaux Superieur, and Premieres Cotes de Bordeaux are Merlot-dominated and in most cases contain no Cabernet Sauvignon. Some of these Merlot-based reds can taste an awful lot like Cabernet Sauvignon-based reds. However, in the top appellations, Merlot is typically more concentrated and rich and higher in extract and alcohol than Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot grows best in cooler damper, clay-dominated soils or on limestone and handles cooler temperatures better than Cabernet Sauvignon.
It would be simple to think of the Haut Medoc (the southern part of the Medoc closest to Bordeaux and encompassing those famous chateaux listed above) and the Graves regions as being Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated but even there, Merlot is the most planted grape. It is only in the best chateaux from the most famous appellations where Cabernet makes up a majority of the blend. The vineyards in the best areas of the Haut Medoc may be planted to from 60% to 80% Cabernet Sauvignon but none are 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. In Graves, Cabernet Sauvignon may make up 40-70% of a particular chateau’s plantation with the higher end of the range found in the better Pessac-Leognan sub-appellation. The percentage of Cabernet in a finished wine may be higher or lower based on the relative quality of Cabernet or Merlot in a given year. 1996 is clearly a Cabernet year. 1998 is clearly a Merlot year.
Of the over 8,000 chateaux producing red wine in Bordeaux, fewer than 300 produce a wine made from over 50% Cabernet Sauvignon.
Left Bank vs. Right Bank
So if Left Bank vs. RightBbank is not Cabernet Sauvignon vs. Merlot, what is it? The difference in Left Bank and Right Bank is more a difference of soils. And wine styles. And cultures.
Without thinking of grape varieties, think of the Left Bank as the area to the left, as you look north from the city of Bordeaux, of the Gironde estuary and its more southern and western tributary – the Garonne river. The Left Bank’s red wine appellations include all the wines of the Medoc and Haut Medoc and all of Graves. There is some Bordeaux appellation red wine made on the Left Bank but most of it is stylistically anonymous. Most of the vineyards of the Medoc Peninsula and Graves are on a series of gravel mounds that generally slope toward the Gironde/Garonne. In the warmer areas, Cabernet Sauvignon does best on these well-drained soils. In the far north of the Medoc and in some of the lower areas that lack gravel, most growers plant more of the earlier/easier ripening Merlot and even some Cabernet Franc. In the warmest gravelly areas a little of the very hard to ripen but very high quality and quite fickle Petite Verdot is planted. Whatever grapes are planted, the well-drained, gravelly soils of the Left Bank give the wines a lighter terroir expression with a gravel-and-mineral-driven-elegance.
Think of the Right Bank as the area to the right – again looking north, this time from Libourne – of the Gironde and its more northern and eastern tributary – the Dordogne river. In popular usage, “The Right Bank” refers first to St. Emilion and Pomerol and second to the areas around them including Canon-Fronsac, Lalande de Pomerol, the Cotes de Francs and Castillon, as well as the St. Emilion satellites. The soils in these areas are more clay-based, often with limestone underneath the clay and with, in some spots, gravel above it. Merlot does best here and Cabernet Franc provides complexity and, if there is enough of it, elegance. In the Right Bank appellations, Cabernet Sauvignon is grown but it does not get ripe enough to use in every year. Cabernet Sauvignon rarely makes up more that 10% of a right bank vineyard and is most often completely absent. The heavier clay based soils of the Right Bank lend themselves, especially in the top appellations, to wines of power and depth and concentration – which is all good – but which can lead to dark, monolithic, over-extracted wines which show little in the way of elegance or balance. All but the very best of the Right Bank wines were little known in the US until Robert Parker (The Wine Advocate) began to focus on them extensively in the 1980s and especially in the 1990s.
Of course, there is a huge area in between the Dordogne and the Garonne that makes red wines labeled mostly Bordeaux or Bordeaux Superieur from mostly Merlot grapes blended with some Cabernet Franc and even a little Malbec. These anonymous Bordeaux reds are the bargain bin Bordeaux wines in the US and the staple of the European supermarket trade. The wines are mostly decent but mediocre. There are a few producers who rise above the mass and gain more of a reputation and somewhat higher prices. But since we are looking at Bordeaux two ways – left bank vs. right – we’ll ignore for the moment this “middle ground” and stick to our generalization.
Culturally, the Left Bank wines are tied to the city of Bordeaux and the wines of the Right Bank are tied to Libourne. Historically, Bordeaux is the seat of Aquitaine and has long been an international city focused on trade with the world. The prosperity of Bordeaux and the left bank is visible in the grand scale and elegance of the architecture of both the city and the chateaux of Graves and the Medoc as well as the size and production of the chateaux. Libourne is a smaller city with less of a presence in the world surrounded by smaller wine estates that look more like comfortable farms and country houses than they do the grand estates of the Left Bank. The chateaux and their holdings are smaller and production is lower.
By way of contrast, consider the famous Ch. Lafite Rothschild of Pauillac and the equally celebrated Ch. Petrus of Pomerol. The Left Bank’s Ch. Lafite Rothschild is an estate of about 247 acres which produces about 40,000 cases per year. The Right Bank’s Ch. Petrus boasts 28.4 acres and an average annual production of about 3,000 cases. The house at Lafite can only be described as a mansion while the house a Petrus is much more a comfortable but not overly large home. At a less exalted level, consider the Left Bank’s Ch. Gruaud Larose (St. Julien) at 326 acres and over 41,000 cases of average annual production versus the Right Bank’s Ch. Angelus (St. Emilion) at 57.8 acres and 9160 cases of average annual production.
Cru Classé vs. Petite Chateau
Looking at the contrasts above, you might think that Cru Classé (or classified growths) vs. Petite Chateau is actually Left Bank versus Right Bank – and there is a bit of that – but it is much more. The Cru Classé wines are the wines of the Classification of 1855, along with the wines from the more recent official classifications of Graves and St. Emilion and the top wines of Pomerol (which never have been formally classified). So the Cru Classé are the officially recognized “great wines” of Bordeaux. For the most part, these wines are the establishment of Bordeaux. The Petite Chateaux, which encompasses most everything that is not Cru Classé, are not necessarily smaller physically (either in terms of acreage or the size of the actual chateau) but they are smaller in repute and, for the most part, commercial success. It might be argued that the difference between the Cru Classé and the Petite Chateaux has more to do with the resources available to them. This is often true but there are plenty of wealthy owners of Petite Chateaux that lavish money and attention on the wines of their properties. It is often said that these are Petite Chateaux who “work like a Cru Classé.” This availability of resources really falls more in to the discussion of “Haves vs. Have-Nots” which we’ll come to shortly.
What CC vs. PC really comes down to is the fact that Bordeaux is a mature wine-growing region. All the best places – the best terroirs – to grow grapes have been planted and their relative quality has been identified. Where there are numerous sites with great terroir in one area, a famous appellation emerges. (Terroir is that unique combination of soil, subsoil, bedrock, slope, drainage, exposure, elevation, and microclimate, and even local culture and tradition that defines the distinct taste a plot of land gives to the grapes and to the wine.)
Everyone knows that Ch. Latour makes great wine. Some know which parts – which terroirs – of Ch. Latour’s vineyard make wine that always goes in the grand vin and which parts make wine that always goes into Les Forts (the second wine) or Pauillac (the third wine), and which parts make wines that, depending on the vintage, sometimes change from one to the other. Ch. Latour has recently purchased more vineyards in Pauillac. The terroir of these new vineyards is very good but, according to Ch. Latour director Frederic Engerer, it is highly unlikely that any of their grapes will ever make it into the grand vin. Instead the new grapes will be used to supplement the supply of Pauillac and some parts may, with a few years of vineyard work, eventually achieve the quality needed to make it into Les Forts. Their terroir is simply not good enough to make it into the Grand Vin de Ch. Latour.
The point of all this is that, with a very few exceptions, the Cru Classé own and farm most all the best terroir and so have an inherent natural advantage over their Petite Chateau neighbors.
Wines of Balance vs. Wines of Extraction
No matter where a chateau is located, what grapes it is growing, how big it is, or how deep the owner’s pockets, there are some grape-growing and winemaking decisions to be made that affect the final style of the wine. In the vineyard, they must decide how severely to prune, whether to leaf thin, whether to green harvest (thin the crop before the grapes change from green to red), and when to pick. In the winery, they must decide how to crush the grapes, whether to use a pre-fermentation cold soak (and for how long), how hot to allow the fermenting wine to get, whether to pump over or use pigeage or rack-and-return or a combination, whether to use a post-fermentation maceration. In the cellar, they must decide whether to have the second (malo-lactic) fermentation early on in the tanks or later in barrels. They must decide the percentage of new barrels to use, whether to rack or use micro-oxygenation and, if they rack, how often. They must decide whether to fine and/or filter and when and how to bottle. The decisions made in the vineyard determine how ripe, mature, balanced, and concentrated the grapes are. The decisions in the winery and cellar determine how much of the vineyard and the varieties comes through in the wine, how dark the wine is, how much “other flavor” the wine takes on.
A traditional, quality-oriented producer such as Margaux’s Ch. Rauzan Segla under the guidance since 1994 of John Kolasa prunes for balance aiming for yields in the 2-3 tons per acre range. After the clusters begin to form, they project the crop size and cluster thin if necessary to keep the yields within that range where the vineyard is balanced. The grapes are picked when they reach physiological maturity (with brown rather than green seeds). If the yields are too high, the grapes will lack concentration and may not ripen. If the yields are too low, the grapes may ripen before they are mature. In a balanced vineyard, ripeness and maturity come at about the same time.
In the winery, a traditional fermentation with pump-overs is followed by a 10-14 day post fermentation maceration all in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks. Malolactic fermentation may follow in tanks or in barrels. After malo, the wine is racked off its lees, sulfured, and put into barrels of which no more than half are new. During the 14-20 months of barrel aging, the wine is racked as many as five times. Cabernet Sauvignon (which is dominant in Margaux) needs some air or it will develop reductive aromas. The result is a balanced wine that tastes of where it is from and the grapes it is made from.
Another winery, growing Merlot in Pomerol, may take the approach that if low yields are good, lower yields are better. They may want to make a super dark, richly extracted wine so they may pick a bit over ripe and do a five day pre-fermentation cold soak to start extraction, follow that with a fairly short fermentation in smaller open-topped tanks using pigeage followed by a post fermentation maceration followed by malolactic fermentation in mostly or all new barrels with minimal or no racking and the occasional micro-oxygenation (bubbling small amounts of air into the wine in the barrel using a tool a bit like a bait well aerator) treatment, and even lees stirring. All that soaking, manipulating, macerating, bubbling, and stirring makes for a lot of extraction and richness and a big feel in the mouth. If over done – and it often is – it also makes for the fruit masked by and any terroir notes present buried under the weight of the extract and oak.
It seems to me that the only valid reason for going the extraction route is to make something rich to make up for a lack of terroir. If your terroir and fruit are good enough, why mask them?
A lot of the extracted wines we see now are due to the success of the Garagistas and the coming of the consultants. The Garagista movement starts with a bit of “David vs. Goliath” combined with a bit of “outsider vs. insider” mixed with the fallacy that “smaller is always better.” It has evolved to include some established players. St. Emilion and Pomerol are the birthplace of the Garagistas. These are very small producers farming small plots and making small amounts of often highly artesianal wine. Some of these micro-vinifications are made in converted garages (or at least in garage-sized spaces – hence the name) but some are carried out in more traditional surroundings.
One of the more celebrated garagistas, Ch. Valandraud (6.2 acres, 950 cases), is literally made in a garage inside the maze of the town of St. Emilion. It feels more like a domain in Burgundy. As in Burgundy, Valandraud uses pigeage or punching down the cap in addition to the more Bordelaise pumping over to aid extraction. Valandraud is a mostly Merlot wine of real depth and extraction that sacrifices some terroir character for more structure and a certain lushness.
The garagista phenomenon is not limited to small owners. Such disparate St. Emilion producers as Stephan von Neipperg (Ch. Canon La Gaffeliere) and Gerard Becot (Ch. Beau Sejour Becot) also own micro-vinification efforts in la Mondotte (Neipperg) and la Gomerie (Becot). Ch. Angelus owner Hubert de Bouard also owns a Lalande de Pomerol chateau he split, due to its two distinct terroirs, into two labels: Ch. La Fleur St. Georges and Ch. La Fleur de Bouard. Each wine is better by itself than the blend of the two together. So far so good but then he made, from the La Fleur de Bouard terroir, a micro-vinification “super cuvee” called le Plus de La Fleur de Bouard. It seems like it is big and rich for the sake of being big and rich.
I’m not sure I see the point … but apparently Robert Parker does. The whole garagista movement and the trend toward wines of extraction goes back to Mr. Parker’s consistent praise and celebration of big flavors (ripe, lush, extracted, hedonistic …) in wine. It seems that he likes Merlot and higher alcohol contents and richer textures and more extract and concentration. As far as I am concerned there is nothing wrong with any of that as long as the consumer who is buying based on Mr. Parker’s ratings understands what he is writing about and realizes that a 92 point elegantly balanced Margaux and a 92 point highly extracted Pomerol are two very different wines. I know a number of people who bought 1998 vintage Right Bank, Merlot-dominated, fairly extracted wines based on Parker points who are now wondering what to do with those wines as they are more interested in drinking Balanced, Left Back, Cabernet-based wines.
I “get it” at Valandraud and a few others; however, in many garagistas and increasingly in larger producers under the sway of such Right Bank-based consultants as the omnipresent Michel Roland, the extraction goes too far (witness le Plus, la Gomerie, Magrez-Fombrauge, and even Ch. Pape Clement) and I don’t “get it.” I almost always prefer the balanced wines that show their fruit and terroir, even if they are a bit lighter in color. Bordeaux wines have long been called Claret because they were once that color (red) as opposed to the purple black color we often see today. I also don’t get the very high prices many of these wines of over-extraction fetch.
Haves vs. Have-Nots
A final way of looking at red Bordeaux is to look at the producers as Haves and Have-Nots. The Haves are those chateaux that have the resources, terroir, and will to do what it takes to make fine wine in whatever vintage. The Have Nots are those that are missing one or more of those elements. It costs money to reduce your crop. It costs money to buy new barrels, refurbish your wooden tanks or replace them with stainless steel, or to have a set of wooden tanks and a set of stainless steel tanks so you can use either. It costs money to have a high quality bottling line you use only one or two weeks a year. It takes money and resources to have crews in the vineyards the entire year round looking for and correcting small problems before they become big problems
The 2002 vintage in Bordeaux is an excellent case in point. 2002 had the potential to be an excellent vintage but it also had the potential for disaster. The difference between the two extremes? Whether the individual chateau had the resources and will to solve the problems as they happened. 2002 required early spraying for rot (and a lot of it needed to be done on a weekend) and leaf thinning to open the canopy to more airflow so rot would not continue to be a problem. 2002 required a reduction in crop size via a green harvest (picking and discarding a certain percentage of clusters long before they were ripe – well before verasion – so that the vine could focus its energy on ripening the remaining clusters) – and some chateau made more than one green harvest. 2002 also required restraint in the winery as it is a vintage for wines of balance that could easily be over-whelmed by over extraction. In today’s ratings driven market, it takes confidence to make a lighter, more elegant wine. Those chateaux – the “Haves” in terms of both will and resources – that did what was necessary made great wine in 2002. Those chateaux – the “Haves-Nots” – that just let nature take its course made wines that varied from just good down to poor.
If you look only at the top 150 or so chateaux – the Haves (most all of whom are familiar names) – Bordeaux has not had a “bad vintage” since 1992. If you include the over 8000 Have Nots (most of whose names you have never heard), there have only been three good vintages (1995, 2000, and 2005) since the excellent 1990. In those broad good vintages, Spec’s buys 130-150 different Bordeaux wines. In vintages like 1999, 2002, and 2004, we buy only the 65-75 best wines of the vintage – which are often as good as the same wines in the universally celebrated vintages.
By using these five ways of looking two ways at Bordeaux, we can really understand what a wine is and where it fits in the hierarchy of the red Bordeaux wines.
Ch. Latour is a Cabernet Sauvignon-based, Left Bank, Cru Classé, Wines of Balance, and a Have. So are Chx. Margaux, Haut-Brion, Rauzan-Segla, Leoville-Barton, Cos d’Estournel, Ch. Haut-Bailly, Pichon-Baron, Grand Puy Lacoste, Branaire-Ducru, and a host of others. All make more or less elegant, balanced wines that taste of their fruit and their location. Rarely are any accused of over extraction or over manipulation.
Ch. Cheval Blanc and Vieux Ch. Certan (VCC) are Merlot-dominated (but with a lot of Cabernet Franc), Right Bank, Cru Classé, Wines of Balance, and Haves. They make, year in and year out, the most elegant wines of the Right Bank – and are among the best wines of Bordeaux. They can be compared to la Gomerie and Magrez Fombrauge which are heavily Merlot-dominated, Right Bank, Garragista, Extracted Producers, and Haves (you can’t be a real Garragista without lots of will and at least some resources). The contrast between the elegant Cheval Blanc and VCC and the extracted Gomerie and Magrez is so great, it is hard to believe the wines come from the same region.
And consider Ch. Parenchere. Parenchere is located in the hinterlands of Bordeaux in the southeastern corner of the appellation, way past St. Emilion and the Cotes de Castillon. Parenchere is a Cabernet Sauvignon-based, Right Bank, Petite Chateau, Wine of Balance, and a Have. Parenchere works like a Cru Classé and has excellent terroir so the wine is much better than the price or obscure location would indicate.
By using these five ways of looking two ways at Bordeaux, and knowing your own palate, you will know which wines of Bordeaux to buy for your ultimate satisfaction.