Wine 101: French Wine Regions: Bordeaux: Left Bank

E. & J. Gallo Winery is excited to sponsor this episode of VinePair’s “Wine 101.” Gallo always welcomes new friends to wine with an amazing, wide spectrum of favorites ranging from everyday to luxury and sparkling wine. Gallo also makes award-winning spirits, but this is a wine podcast. Whether you are new to wine or an aficionado, Gallo welcomes you to wine. We look forward to serving you enjoyment in the moments that matter. Cheers.

On this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair’s tasting director Keith Beavers explores the history of the Bordeaux Appellation breakdown as well as the general styles of the more celebrated communes.

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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers. Did you know that “taco cat” spelled backward is “taco cat”? Think about it.

What’s going on, wine lovers? From the VinePair Podcasting Network, this is the “Wine 101” podcast. My name is Keith Beavers. I am the tastings director of VinePair. Hi. Is that too much? We are going back to Bordeaux. I know I did a whole thing on the appellation system, but I want to give you guys some history, some context, and some styles. Let’s do one bank at a time, shall we? Let’s start with the Left Bank. This is the Left Bank episode.

Oh, wow, wine lovers. We’re back. Season 4. I don’t want to get too much into it because we have a lot to talk about. I’m just so excited to be back. Remember back — I think it was in Season 1 we did an entire Bordeaux episode and it was just a compact 20 minutes of the entire appellation system of Bordeaux, Left, Right, and everything else. Well, during that episode, I talked about how much I wanted to give context to a lot of this but I couldn’t because it was so packed.

What I wanted to do was, I’m going to do an episode of the Banks. This is the Left Bank episode and then next week we’ll do the Right Bank. We’ll just dive in deep here and give some history and context to that episode. Either before you listen to this episode or after you listen to this episode, go back to Season 1 and listen to the Bordeaux episode to give you a nice layout of the appellation system because here we’re going to talk about the development of the region and some of the more celebrated communes that are along the estuary. It all makes sense in that episode.

When we think about Bordeaux, we think about how famous it is and how it set a standard, especially for red wine around the world, the New World, the Old World. It’s a huge influence and a lot of that influence comes from the Left Bank of Bordeaux. For us, as American wine consumers, the vintage of 1982 is our entry into Bordeaux. I know that’s pretty recent so let’s go all the way back.

There’s no need to go back to the Romans here. There were Roman plantings in this area and I’ll touch on that in a minute. It really comes down to English rule starting in 1152. This was where the Bordeaux region started to provide wine to the British Empire. This is a time when the majority of the wine being made in Bordeaux was all the way towards the south in what is called Graves.

The British Empire gave privileges to winemakers in this area. There was a very rapid expansion of vineyard planting to get wine made for the British Empire to make that money. In Graves, the second big deal of Bordeaux naturally occurred. There are these mounds of gravel naturally occurring through years and millennia of deposits that the French called “croupe” or “hillocks.” There are these big mounds of gravel and clay and limestone, and wine was made here.

This was basically considered medieval Bordeaux if you will, but it was not the Bordeaux wines that we know today. The word “claret” you hear a lot when you talk about Bordeaux and the British Empire. The word claret comes from this time because there wasn’t a focus on single varieties or stuff like that. This was just field blends and the wine was red and it was light and it could make it to Britain without going bad. This is what claret was, the rise of that word.

Then in the mid-15th century, I think around 1453 or so, the English lose power. The French come back into power in this area and a lot of capital is lost because the English are gone. All that is filled in by mostly the Germans and the Dutch, and there were some Irish coming in. Now, at this point because of the British rule for so long, this was a thriving trade area in Port Town. Wine, not only wine but cereal and other products. The Dutch were big trading people. They were in Bordeaux and they were trying to figure out a way to streamline trade even more, even though we had an estuary and the Atlantic Ocean right there.

This is where everything starts to change for the Left Bank and puts us on the path to where we are today. This is when a man by the name of Jean de Pontac marries into a family and through a dowry acquires a château, and he starts to plant vines. This is where the word “château” begins in Bordeaux, in the Left Bank, specifically. The word château is the word used in French for a home or an estate that is passed down through a lineage of nobility.

When Pontac took this place over with his wife, his wife’s father was a mayor, and I believe that must have had some nobility to it, so this was the Château Pontac. He named it Haut-Brion and he started planting vines, which is really cool because this is a first-growth château. All this was happening in Graves, the place with those croupes, the natural hillocks of all that gravelly soil. The wines from this particular estate began to be — well, they were celebrated in Bordeaux but at a certain point, the family goes to London, specifically with a marketing campaign for their wines, and these wines start to gain popularity there.

This is one of the first times that an actual château or an estate is talked about and celebrated in London. Then — this is crazy, wine lovers — the Haut-Brion was not going to have all this monopoly for long because the Dutch had this idea and this wasn’t an idea specifically for wine, it was for trade in general, but it ended up being how the Left Bank of Bordeaux developed. This is what I find so unique about Bordeaux, more than any other region in the world. This is just crazy how this worked out.

Most of the land north of Bordeaux proper towards the Atlantic Ocean was considered swamp land. It was just grazing land for animals and cereal fields, but the Dutch thought that if they drained this swampy area, pumped out the water, planted reeds so that the water evaporates, and then created channels to divert the water so it never forms a swamp again. Not only did this streamline trade, but it created about 5,000 acres of habitable land along the estuary.

A result of this was more hillocks or croupe, so the natural croupes that were naturally occurring in Graves were now built along the estuary towards the Atlantic. These were large, terraced mounds of raised thick gravel with a clay base and some chalk and some limestone, and they were raised above sea level. You basically had new terroir and wine was very popular, obviously, so more and more châteaus were being built in the small communes along the estuary: Pauillac, Saint-Estèphe, Saint-Julien. This is what led to the dominance of Cabernet Sauvignon on the Left Bank of Bordeaux.

We had two things going on here. We had the soil, which was gravel on these croupes, had excellent drainage. Even an area that was traditionally a flood zone didn’t really flood because of the raised gravel mounds. Also, the proximity to the water had a lake effect where frost didn’t really hit these vines. Frost was a problem more inland. You basically had one of the perfect areas for Cabernet Sauvignon. Little side note here: I find it just so fascinating that these famous places like Burgundy are celebrated because of their naturally occurring chaotic soils from millennia of geographical activity, whereas Bordeaux is celebrated for its soil composition, but a lot of it was built by humans.

This, of course, began an expansion north, and this is where the châteaus started being built, and what’s very interesting now is a shift started happening. Because the French and the English were at odds with each other, the English imposed high duties on anything imported from France, making claret not a very good value anymore. If the English were going to spend a bunch of money on wine, they wanted good quality, and this is where the shift goes from claret to the Bordeaux that we know today.

By the end of the 18th century, the château thing, the château hierarchy, or the château system was well established. I read that there are records in the London Gazette going back to the early 1700s announcing the sale of parcels of new vintages or new wine from Château Lafite, Margaux, and Latour. And because this good-quality, fine-wine trend took hold and developed, by the 1855 classification, there was already… everyone knew what the best châteaus were.

There was a three-tier system in Bordeaux. You had the owner of the château, then you had the merchant and between that, the middleman was the broker. The brokers were the ones that were asked by the Bordeaux Board of Commerce to come up with a list of châteaus for the 1855 classification. What’s interesting is, before the 1855 classification, there were many attempts to classify the châteaus in this area. This was just a big ask from the government and it held. I mean, it really held.

The whole idea of this classification system was not just to be set in stone, it was in theory, a classification system that was supposed to evolve, allowing other winemakers in the area in châteaux to eventually be incorporated into this list, but that never happened. I read a quote that said, “There is nothing official about the classification of the Médoc wines, nor is it definitive or irrevocable. The classification always leaves open the hope for all properties of a new and higher standing for their wines.” Never happened.

What did happen is the 1855 classification became the best PR marketing tool the brokers ever had, and the classification system became not an evolving thing, but it was holy and you didn’t mess with it. I mean, don’t get me wrong, for a long time, other properties always kept on trying to get in, but the people that are already part of it wouldn’t let them in. There was a quote by Anthony Barton, he was the owner of two class growths. He said, quote, “There is plenty of conflict and envy between owners as it is. Just imagine the repercussions if some of their properties were demoted in a new classification. There would be blood in the streets.” Okay, that’s a little much.

I mean, Bordeaux did go through some things. It went through phylloxera, went through world wars, it went through economic problems, all that stuff. There was a time before the 1980s when a lot of wine regions in the world were having problems, and Bordeaux was not safe from that, but it was the 1982 vintage, like I said at the beginning of this episode, when a man named Robert Parker came to town obsessed with Bordeaux and started writing about it. Not just writing about it, because that’s what a lot of British critics would do. He wrote about it, but he scored it, and that was the key. Giving a score to a wine simplifies it and allows the consumer to understand it more instead of having to read stuff and say, “It’s a what number? Okay, I’m going to buy that.”

To put this into context, I found another really great quote by Michel Tesseron of Château Lafon-Rochet: “Before 1982, nobody talked about fruit in a wine.” What? Okay, back to the quote. “But ever since 1982, we all tried to pick only when the grapes were properly ripe.” Okay, get back to the quote. “Before then,” means before 1982, I guess, “You picked the first vines when they were still unripe and the last vines when they were overripe.” That’s messy.

Here we have Bordeaux with the classification system, the popularity of Bordeaux, the scores, and this is the era of “en premiere” where you can buy wines before they’re even in bottle, and also, this is the era of the second label, meaning if a first growth or a classified growth makes very expensive wine, they can also make a second label that’s a little bit less expensive they can offer to, I don’t know, the plebes? Because make no mistake, these wines are really expensive and they can last for a long time in bottle, and they can age and they develop and it’s beautiful.

Today, we have the classifications and then we have the second labels within those classifications. It’s not just the first growths that are most popular. There are growths like third growths that are getting popular. It changes, but these châteaus have since 1855 been maintaining their quality. It’s almost like getting a Michelin star. Once you get a Michelin star for a restaurant, the stress is you got to keep the star. The one thing about these châteaus is that they never have to worry about losing it, even though in theory they could, but they never will.

They still have to maintain their quality to maintain their reputation. Crazy. With that being said, let’s go through these communes that have these croupes or hillocks that are on the estuaries that are celebrated, that have these classifications in them. It’s very hard to generalize style, but you can get a sense of the style of these places. It’s very cool. We’ll start with Margaux.

Margaux is home to about a third of all the classified growths. It’s only about five miles long from end to end. It has about 4,000 acres under vine and they make about over 6 million bottles a year.

It’s the second-largest commune after Graves and well over 50 percent of the vines are Cabernet Sauvignon, obviously. Here, Cabernet Sauvignon ripens about three to five days earlier than other communes. There are also some clay deposits that Merlot really likes. The result is a very general misleading statement about these wines from this area, that they’re a little more elegant, a little more live, a little lighter. It’s kind of misleading. There are some powerful wines coming from here, but they do have an elegance to them. But it’s a big appellation, so that’s not 100 percent the case. You just kind of taste through them.

Going north, we had Saint-Julien. It’s smaller, about 2,300, give or take, acres under vine, and only produces about a little over 5 percent of the wine in the Médoc, but 90 percent of its vineyards are classified growths, yielding about 6 million bottles a year. It’s said here that the best wines come from vineyards that are right along the estuary, taking advantage of that lake effect, and that the resulting wines have a very fruit-forward expression, but are very structured, at the same time, elegant. That’s a very big generalization.

What they’re saying is the fruit is the first really prominent thing that your palate enjoys and the structure and the power are there, but the elegance always holds. I believe that’s in the acidity and obviously, with all those class growths, Cabernet Sauvignon is dominant.

Now we go to Pauillac. Pauillac is the Bordeaux that you know. It is the dense, powerful, huge ideas that are being copied or not copied, but influence winemakers in the New World, in some of the ways that the Old World ages their wine today. In this commune, there are no generalizations here. The wines of Pauillac are about power and age-ability and structure and density. They are beautiful, deep, soulful, age-worthy wines. Full stop. You have around 3,000 acres under vine around there that pump out about 7 million bottles a year. This place is home to 18 classified growths and obviously, Cabernet Sauvignon is dominant, like, 62 percent.

As we get closer to the ocean, what was once called Bas-Médoc, or just now just the Médoc, is Saint- Estèphe. It’s home to five classified growths. We’re getting closer to where Cab doesn’t thrive as much as it could south of here. The best Cabernet is mostly towards the estuary, which makes absolute sense because of the lake effect. In recent years, they’ve shifted, where 50 percent is Cab but they have a significant amount of Merlot here as well because of the clay deposits, and that’s about 40 percent. That’s a big percentage of Merlot to be blended. Then, of course, there’s some Cab Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot, which are the other blending varieties in Bordeaux in general. I read somewhere that the wines of Saint-Estèphe used to be tough as nails. It took forever to age, and they’re still like that today. They’re big, they’re robust, they’re solid, but they have a nice perfume to them because of the climactic conditions in the area.

This is going to be in the Bordeaux episode from Season 1, but I must mention Pessac-Léognan, which is mostly a white wine-producing region, but this is where Haut-Brion is. This is where it all began, and this is the largest commune coming in at about over 4,000 acres under vine, but it’s 25 percent white, which is a big percentage, and then they do about 80 percent red. But here there tends to be a little bit more Merlot than Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot is 52 percent, Cabernet Sauvignon is about 42 percent, and then there’s 79, 80 percent of Sauvignon Blanc. It gives you an idea of what they’re focusing on there.

Because this area is like an OG earth pile of a hillock, the soils are very, very diverse, more so than the human-made hillocks of the north. It’s said that it’s very hard to generalize the style here because of that. That’s a very old-school, terroir-driven idea. Pretty cool.

Yes, I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time, putting the first Bordeaux episode into some context with some history and some styles to give you guys a supplement to that episode. Next week, we’re going to get nice with the Right Bank. See you then.

@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there. 

And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.

E. & J. Gallo Winery is excited to sponsor this episode of VinePair’s “Wine 101.” Gallo always welcomes new friends to wine with an amazingly wide spectrum of favorites, ranging from everyday to luxury and sparkling wine. Gallo also makes award-winning spirits, but this is a wine podcast. Whether you are new to wine or an aficionado, Gallo welcomes you to wine. Visit today to find your next favorite, where shipping is available.