Britain’s love affair with the wines of Bordeaux dates back centuries, although, like many love affairs, it has had its good and bad times! For much of this period, my adopted home city of Bristol was one of the main ports of entry for Bordeaux wines coming into this country and, although that has now changed, the 2 cities are twinned as a reminder of their long-standing links.
So, do these links mean that the people of Bristol or, indeed, wine lovers anywhere, really know their Bordeaux wines? I wonder! For me, Bordeaux isn’t one region, but two, divided by the Garonne River and the Gironde Estuary into which it flows. To the west, we have the so-called ‘Left Bank’ wines of the Medoc and Graves, to the east the ‘Right Bank’ wines: St Emilion, Pomerol, Bourg, Blaye and the rest.
But there is far more to this than a simple geographical split; the wines of the Left and the Right – particularly the reds, which form the vast majority of the production – taste very differently from each other. And so they should for the simple reason that the mix of grapes used is different. On the left bank, reds would typically contain a high proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon blended with some Merlot and perhaps some Cabernet Franc as well. The Cabernet Sauvignon dominates giving the wines lovely vibrant blackcurrant aromas and flavours when young, cedary hints as they mature and always good acidity and plenty of tannin; occasionally some green pepper or leafy character in a poorer year.
Over on the right bank, there is far less Cabernet Sauvignon grown and the reds are mainly Merlot with Cabernet Franc in support. So, little sign of blackcurrant flavours; instead, the Merlot-based wines can have quite a wide range of tastes: plums, damsons, prunes, cloves, chocolate, licorice. All or any of these can be found in a good right bank wine, plus a richness and fullness of flavour that comes from the fact that, in the right place, Merlot ripens really well, giving higher levels of alcohol and a hint of sweetness to the wine.
So, next time you think of buying some red Bordeaux, decide first which of these flavours you’re looking for and make sure you choose the appropriate side of Bordeaux.