Welcome to Part Two of an introduction into Bordeaux wine. This particular blog will be focusing on all things Left Bank, starting in the very north of Médoc and working its way up the Garonne to Sauternes in the far south.
The wider Médoc region is known for its gravelly soils and graphite-driven red wines with a dominance of Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend. There are two other red grapes though, Malbec and Petit Verdot, but these are grown in smaller quantities. All the grapes add something to the wine, but another advantage is that bad weather may only affect one variety. The most prestigious sub-regions in Médoc include Pauillac, Saint-Julien, Saint–Estèphe and Margaux (the areas first classified in 1855). The wines from Médoc are some of the boldest and most tannic of Bordeaux, perfect for aging or matching with red meat. A certain austerity and harshness can be felt the first few years and you should in most cases wait, around 10-15 years before drinking fine Bordeaux wines.
Médoc, the sub-region closest to the sea, and furthest from Bordeaux city, provides the most affordable reds. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the most planted varieties. They are typically grown on different soils to get the best results from each grape. Cabernet Sauvignon suits the darker, gravel soils otherwise it would struggle to ripen. Merlot grows well on the cooler, clay soils as it ripens earlier and more easily. The wines here are generally lighter and earlier drinking with floral and blackberry flavours.
Haut-Médoc is one step above Médoc in the formal classification system, with the name literally translating from French as High Medoc. This sub-region being further inland provides greater shelter from the elements, therefore, the grapes produce deeper more concentrated black fruit flavours and the wines have a richer tannin structure. Often the wines are aged in barrel giving toasty vanilla and sweet nutmeg aromas that balance out the fruit. They are generally higher quality than the Médoc alone, offering huge complexity, mineral characters and best of all value for money.
Saint-Estèphe is the northernmost appellation in Médoc. The vineyards here stretch over 1,229 hectares across the largely flat landscape. Saint-Estèphe has a lot of areas where you can see clay-dominant and gravelly soils which gives solid fruity wines and also excellent value. Earthy and muscular in style, often the wines from here have soft tannins and fresh acidity.
A large part of what makes Saint Estèphe unique however is the prominence of clay in the soil. You find more clay in St. Estephe than you do in any other major Médoc appellation. This is important to know because unlike more gravelly soils, clay retains moisture in the hot, dry vintages. That is why vintages like 2003 and 2009 were so successful in St. Estèphe.
Characteristics: Fruity, spicy, earthy, muscular
Pauillac is located between Saint-Estèphe and Saint-Julien. The region is full of gravel-rich soils however there is surprisingly large variation within the appellation. In the northern part, the land has slightly higher elevations with deep, gravel on top of sand and limestone. At the southern tip, there is a greater concentration of larger rocks and stones with more clay and iron in the soil.
Today, the best land with elevation and gentle slopes belongs to the top three premier crus of Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Latour, and Mouton Rothschild. Their wines are the classic example of Médoc at its best: deep, intense, full and distinctive. The complex terroir of Pauillac is aided by ample water from the Gironde when it’s a dry year, coupled with the ability for natural drainage in the wet, rainy years. While these poor soils are not fit for most agricultural products, they are perfect for grapes since they naturally force the vines to delve deep into the soil to find proper nourishment. Therefore, the resulting fruit is packed full of minerals and complex flavour. Pauillac’s proximity to the Gironde also renders its microclimate warmer than the interior. This aids in the early maturing of grapes.
Over hundreds of vintages, the châteaux and their winemakers have become very skilled at emphasizing the individuality of their vineyards, and there is general agreement that the styles of the top three châteaux are discernibly different. Overall, however, there is still an identifiable Pauillac wine style: full, rich, and characterized by the classic cassis-and-cedarwood aromas of oak-aged Cabernet Sauvignon.
Characteristics: Powerful, rich and complex
Saint-Julien is situated south of Pauillac, near the Gironde. It is a small but world-renowned red wine appellation full of gravel-rich soils. Wines here are harmonious combining power and finesse with rich mid-palate. St Julien is the smallest of Médoc appellations and although it is lacking any First Growths, it is recognised to be the most consistent with many châteaux turning out impressive wines year after year. The wines can be judged as much by texture as flavour, and there is a sleek, wholesome character to the best. At their very finest they combine Margaux’s elegance and refinement with Pauillac’s power and substance. The soil is gravelly and finer than that of Pauillac, and without the iron content which gives Pauillac its stature. The homogeneous soils in the vineyards (which extend over a relatively small area of just over 700 hectares) give the commune a unified character.
Characteristics: Velvety tannins, powerful, opulent
The Margaux appellation is the southernmost part of the Médoc region. Margaux’s central area is covered by gravel, which creates perfect conditions for deep vine rooting. The climate here is warmer than surrounding appellations which makes the wines from there velvety in texture. The soils in Margaux are the lightest and most gravelly of Médoc, with some also containing a high percentage of sand. Vineyards located in Cantenac and Margaux make up the core of the appellation with the best vineyard sites being located on well-drained slopes, whose lighter soils give Margaux its deft touch and silky perfumes. Further away from the water, there is a greater clay content and the wines are less dramatically perfumed. Wines from here are characterised by extreme finesse, intense flavour but are never heavy. Perfumed, floral, medium-bodied and refined.
Characteristics: Floral, refined, medium-bodied
The Graves region is situated further south, on the left bank of the river Garonne. The name comes from the soil type; Graves are a mix of gravels, clay and sand carried out by the river. Over the years, the Garonne and Dordogne rivers have transported vast quantities of gravel and mineral-rich silts down from their mountain sources. These deposits have accumulated in several areas around the region, most notably in places where a river's course has shifted over time, creating gravel banks. The region contains a handful of appellations which produce very high quality red, white and dessert wine, however the most significant of these are Graves, Sauternes and Barsac.
The Graves appellation itself is located just outside the town of Bordeaux. Graves has one of the warmest micro-climates among the major Bordeaux regions. Therefore estates in Graves are usually the first to start the harvesting season.
Red wines from here are recognizable by their garnet-red colour. They are aromatic, refined, and can offer a smoky sensation. Most of them can be enjoyed in their youth without much if any cellaring.
The whites wines and are among the very best in Bordeaux, they are generally fresh, fruity and dry. Moreover, the appellation of "Graves Supérieurs" is strictly reserved to sweet white wines produced in the area.
Reds Characteristics: Rich, supple, smoky/roasted
Whites Characteristics: Powerful, floral, fruity
Sauternes and Barsac
Within Graves, there are two neighbouring sub-regions, Barsac and Sauternes, which cling to the southwestern side of the Garonne River and curve around the Ciron tributary as it cuts through the two appellations. The two rivers provide a unique microclimate that welcomes cool morning fog and sunny, warm afternoons while allowing noble rot to flourish. This rot is actually a fungus which perforates the grapes' skin, allowing water in the grape to evaporate during dry conditions, and thereby raising the sugar concentration in the remaining juice. This results in the perfect conditions for elegant dessert wine.
The best vineyards in these locations sit on chalky, gravelly soil famed for its white colour. In general, the dessert-styled wines from Barsac tend to be lighter and fresher than those of Sauternes.
Wines from these two areas carry considerable Sémillon in their blends. This is because Sémillon’s thin-skinned structure makes it an easy target for noble rot. Sauvignon Blanc contributes a generous dose of acidity, balancing out the lower acidity of Sémillon. The rarer Muscadelle may also make its way into the region’s sweet wine blends and is noted for its floral character.
Characteristics: Full-bodied, sweet, soft warm spice