WineInk: Basics of Bordeaux Blends

Kelly J. Hayes
Bordeaux is a port city on the Garonne river in Southwestern France
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2016 Château Greysac Médoc Cru Bourgeois

So let’s break the rules and go with a Left Bank wine from just north of St. Estephe that is led by Merlot and not Cabernet Sauvignon. But for under $30 it is a great introduction to quality Cru Bourgeois Supérieur wine that should be reasonably easy to find. 65% Merlot, 29% Cabernet Sauvignon with the remainder Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, this wine would be a great pairing with, say, a hearty beef stroganoff with caramelized mushrooms. Yum. Deep garnet in the glass, the dark berries and the rich texture make it a treat.

Left versus right. For political junkies the differences are deep and allegiances fall decidedly on one side or the other.

But for wine aficionados, when a discussion of left versus right arises, it usually has to do with Bordeaux, France — the world’s most acclaimed wine region, which is divided by the Gironde River into two parts: the Left Bank and the Right Bank. And, though there are distinct differences between the regions and the wines they produce, it is possible, even likely, for a person to equally like the wines from both sides. Imagine that.

Map of Bordeaux wine vineyard
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So what exactly is a Bordeaux blend? Well for a red wine it simply is a wine that uses a combination of at least two of the classic Bordeaux grapes. Those would be cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot, malbec and occasionally carmenère. Period. For whites it would be a wine that blends either semillon, sauvignon blanc, sauvignon gris and muscadelle. More than 80% of the wines produced in Bordeaux are red.

There are no official rules that dictate the percentage of the variety that must be included, nor is “Bordeaux Blend” an official designation. Rather, it is a wine style that is used at the discretion of winemakers to produce red wines that best represent the Bordeaux varietals, soils and the terroir of their specific region.

In Bordeaux, red wines produced on the Left Bank of the Gironde generally are dominated in the blend by cabernet sauvignon, which is the most widely planted vitas vinifera (wine grape) on Earth. Remember that Left Bank wines will be higher in tannins, which makes them a bit more age-worthy. It also makes them a bit bolder and, well, challenging.

The wines from the Right Bank, on the other hand, are led in the blend by merlot. This usually means that they are a bit softer and smoother. merlot, by the way, is the most widely planted wine grape in France. While Right Bank wines can also be big and powerful, there is a bit more subtlety and approachability in a blend that is merlot dominant. They generally are ready to drink a bit younger, as well.

But it is not just the grapes that make the wines from the two banks different. The soils on each side of the Gironde Estuary are markedly unique. On the Left Bank, the mighty rivers have left gravelly soils which stress the vines, making them work to get nutrients for the cabernet planted there. Cross to the Right Bank, on the eastern and northern shores of the rivers, and the soils will largely consist of clay and limestone. They are less gravelly, imparting different characteristics from the merlot that is prevalent there.

The Left Bank is also home to the five famed First Growth Wines (Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Latour, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Haut Brion and Chateau Mouton Rothschild) that were designated in the French Classification of 1855 as decreed by Napoleon III. These are the most prestigious wine houses in the world. While not First Growths, the Right Bank boasts Petrus, Château Cheval Blanc and the tiny — but widely lauded — Le Pin among its residents. Today all of these wines sell for thousands of dollars.

It is easy to dismiss Bordeaux as being expensive and elitist, but the fact is there are over 6,000 producers who make more than 70 million cases of wine each year in Bordeaux. It is the largest wine region in France with 65 separate appellations or AOC-designated regions.

Walk into almost any reputable wine shop and you’ll be able to find a selection from either the Left or Right Bank for well under $30 a bottle. The problem is differentiating between them. Ask and the retailer ought to be able to direct you through the wines they carry. Hopefully you’ll learn something.

Estourel is one of the many castles that produces wine around Bordeaux in France. It is located in the heart of the vineyards in the Médoc.
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You can also search for wines designated with labels that read “Crus Bourgeois du Médoc.” This is a consortium of 249 wineries on the Left Bank in the Médoc AOC, one of the best regions, that have received a three-tiered designation of quality (Cru Bourgeois, Cru Bourgeois Supérieur and Cru Bourgeois Exceptional) but are not a part of the official 1855 classification. There can be great bargains found on these wines and the labels themselves feature a code that allows purchasers to connect to a website for information on the bottle and the Cru Bourgeois criteria.

Wine has been made in Bordeaux since the Romans arrived in the region in the first century. While civilizations have come and gone — some leaning left, some right — a fixture has been wine.

Right Bank or Left, wine remains the one thing that brings people together.