If you made it through the long and detailed Bordeaux Overview, congratulations. You are now ready to move on to the appellations of the Left Bank.
Let’s break it down. We’ll start with a look at the Medoc and Haut-Medoc and then get into Graves. Here we go…
LEFT BANK RED WINE APPELLATIONS
Both Medoc AOC and Haut-Medoc AOC are appellations are for red wine only.
Medoc AOC covers the north end of what’s considered the Left Bank of Bordeaux and is predominantly planted with equal parts Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. As the Atlas describes, “The well-drained dunes of gravel give way to lower, heavier, cooler, and more clay-dominanted land north of St-Estephe … the last commune of the Haut-Medoc, riding a characteristic hump between areas of channel-drained marsh.”
The Atlas further notes that original vine plantings in the area shared ground with pastures, orchards and woodland, but today have concentrated predominantly on higher terrain where “gravel lightens the clay.”
While there are no classed growths within the Medoc AOC, the Atlas offers the opinion that the area is home to some of “the best of the best of the rest and, in riper vintages, some of the best-value Bordeaux has to offer”—many of which will be labeled Cru Bourgeois
Haut Medoc AOC covers area closest to the city of Bordeaux itself and, most notably, includes the famous Left Bank communes (listed and described below). Here, soils are predominantly gravel, lending much needed warmth for the late-ripening dominant variety, Cabernet Sauvignon, which makes up about 50% of total plantings. Merlot, the second most grown variety, makes up 44%, according to my text.
When comparing the wines of these two AOCs, the Atlas has this wonderful anecdote:
“When young, there may be little to distinguish them: both are vigorous, tannic, dry, and tres Bordeaux. At five years, though, the Haut-Medoc wine has begun to soften, but remains sturdy, rather than rustic, often deep-colored, satisfying and savory rather than enlightening and inspiring. At ten years of age there has been more softening, but usually at the expense of ‘structure:’ rarely the refining of character that we find further south.”
I have a wonderful example of this coming up in my Bordeaux tasting notes page (to come).
Left Bank Single Communes
The four famous single communes, located in the Haut-Medoc, are adjacent to and receive the moderating influence from the Gironde Estuary, which brings in the Atlantic air warmed by the Gulf Stream. They all have a high percentage of gravel-based soils, meaning Cabernet Sauvignon can ripen more reliably. All four communes are for red wines only. The wines typically reveal pronounced intensity (with notes of blackcurrant, red plum fruit and green bell pepper—the latter especially in cold vintages), with vanilla and cedar oak notes from barrel aging. They offer medium to high alcohol, high tannins and are medium (+) in body.
St-Estephe is the most northerly and coolest of the four communes: it is closest to the Atlantic Ocean and, as mentioned above, is more clay-dominant in its soils—meaning soils are heavier and slower to drain. The good news is that means that the vines of St-Estephe are better situated for withstanding hotter vintages.
And because of the higher clay content, Merlot makes up 40% of total plantings—the highest percentage of Merlot grown out of all the Left Bank communes, according to my text. Cabernet Sauvignon still makes up the majority of plantings at 50% and is more successful along the gravel and limestone banks of the Gironde.
Because of the cooler soils, ripening is sometimes delayed, meaning grapes from St-Estephe have higher acidity than those grown further south. So it is that the reputation of St-Estephe wines is for their rusticity and the need for several years of bottle age in order to soften.
NOTE: St-Estephe has no first growths, but has two second growths, and a large number of Cru Bourgeois.
“If one had to single out one Bordeaux commune to head the list, there would be no argument. It would be Pauillac.”—The Atlas
Indeed, it is in Pauillac that we find three out of the five first growths ranked in the famous 1855 Classification—Lafite, Latour, and Mouton Rothschild. Pauillac also has the highest proportion of production of crus classe wines (at about 85% of production).
As mentioned above, the commune has a much higher proportion of gravel content. The gravel mounds, or croupes, of Pauillac create the closest thing the Medoc sees to elevation, with the highest point reaching 100 feet above sea level.
So it is that Cabernet Sauvignon plays the dominant role in both plantings (62%) and blending (70 to 80%), creating what is considered the most structured wines of the Left Bank. As the Oxford describes: “[C]ertain expressions recur in Pauillac tasting notes: cassis, cedar, and cigar box (the latter two sometimes a reflection fo the top-quality French oak cooperage which the selling price of Pauillac permit).” With high tannins and high acidity, these wines have the structural components for serious longevity.
St-Julien is the smallest of the famous four communes and, as the Oxford suggests, “may suffer in popular esteem,” because unlike it’s immediate north and south neighbors, Pauillac and Margaux, respectively, there are no first growths. However, it does have a high percentage, almost 90% according to the Atlas, of cru classe production embodying “all the virtues of fine, long-lived blends of Cabernet and Merlot grapes, being deep colored, dry, digestible, appetizing, persistent, intriguing, and rewarding.” (the Oxford)
The region’s reputation is for its relatively homogenous soils consisting of gravelly soils and subsoils. Stylistically, wines are described as a “midway point” between the powerful reds of Pauillac and the finesse of Margaux‘s (see below).
Margaux is the most southern, most isolated, and most extensive of Medoc‘s communal appellations, according to the Oxford, and is the combination of several non-contiguous parcels found in the southern Medoc.
The Atlas notes that here the soils are the thinnest and most gravelly in all of Medoc, so vines cannot root any deeper than 23 feet in search of water.
“The result is wines that start life comparatively supple, although in poor years they can turn out thin. In good and great years, however, all the stories about the virtues of gravel are justified: there is a delicacy about archetypal Margaux, and a sweet, haunting perfume, that can make it the most exquisite claret of all.”
According to my text, however, there is slightly less Cabernet Sauvignon and slightly more Merlot planted in Margaux. With the stony soils and the southern location, grapes ripen a few days earlier than those of Pauillac and between 7 and 10 days earlier than most of the northern Medoc appellation.
I believe this is because of what my text calls “clay seams” that are strewn about the appellation. I think this is in reference to the fact that the aforementioned gravel is quite thin, and the fissures within lead to a more clay-dominant base. So it is that some vineyards actually require drainage systems be installed.
Fun Fact: More Margaux properties were included in the 1855 Classification than any other appellation (more than 20, according to the Oxford). It is, of course, home to one first growth—Chateau Margaux.
The wines of Margaux are noted for their pronounced perfume and silky tannins.
Listrac-Medoc AOC and Moulis AOC
Both appellations are for red wines only. They are located further from the river than the four single communes (above) and, thus, receive less moderating influence from the estuary and there is less gravel in the soils. These AOCs can release wines slightly earlier, but other than that, all the same AOC rules apply.
Graves is a French term for gravelly terrain and it is for this terrain that the AOC takes its name. The appellation applies to both white and red wines but 85% of wines produced are, in fact, red. I love this description from the Oxford: “The reds, which can truly taste like country cousins of their more urbane neighbors in Pessac-Leognan [below], can often be good value, and mature earlier than their Medoc counterparts.”
Graves Superieures AOC is restricted to late picked and/or botrytis affected sweet wines, which allows higher yields than Sauternes. The Oxford describes the wines as “similar to, but generally drier and coarser than those from the enclave entitled to the Cerons appellation.”
Pessac-Leognan is a sub-region within Graves AOC and enjoys both the gravel soils and the moderating effect of the Garonne Estuary. The region produces both high quality, often barrel-fermented and aged dry white wines and high quality red wines. Though it’s reputation may be for white wine production, the red/white wine split actually looks more like 80/20.
Pessac-Leognan includes one First Growth (the oh-so-famous Chateau Haut-Brion) from the 1855 Classification and all of the cru classe properties awarded to the Graves classification. My text imposes that Pessac-Legonan produces the best white wines in Bordeaux—I’m not really one to argue, and a recent tasting does make me agree.
The Oxford notes that red wine blends are similar to those found in the northern Medoc, dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon with both Merlot and Cabernet Franc in the mix. “But the wines can be quite different,” it explains. “It is not fanciful to imagine that the best wines of Pessac-Leognan have a distinct aroma that reminds some tasters of minerals, some of smoke, others even of warm bricks.”
White wines are typically blends of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon (the Oxford adds Muscadelle and Sauvignon Gris to that list)—all of which are grown on the more sandier vineyards. Wines typically assert pronounced aromas of gooseberry, lemon, and grapefruit with vanilla, clove and oak notes from oak. Wines typically show a medium (+) body, medium (+) to high acid and medium to high alcohol.
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