Left Bank and Right Bank are terms that refer to the banks of the River Gironde that flows through Bordeaux. The Left Bank appellations are Pauillac, Saint Estephe, Saint Julien, Margaux and Graves – which includes Pessac Leognan, as such the Left Bank is home to the First Growths Lafite, Latour, Margaux, Haut Brion and Mouton.
The Right Bank appellations are Pomerol and Saint Emilion, home to the top flight wines of Petrus and Le Pin in Pomerol and Ausone and Cheval Blanc in Saint Emilion. Right Bank wines were not included in the 1855 Classification (although Saint Emilion does have its own Classification system which was created in 1954).
There are a number of differences to take into account between the Left and Right Banks. The most noticeable one is that of size. The Left Bank vineyards are large, attached to prestigious châteaux who have been producing wine for European markets for centuries.
The Right Bank vineyards are much smaller, sometimes enclosed by walls (clos) and stately châteaux buildings are few and far between. The Right Bank is also the birthplace of garage vineyards (sometimes known as garagistes, boutique wines, micro-châteaux, cult wines and super-cuvées). Garage wines first appeared in St.
Emilion in the early 1990′s, have a loyal – even quasi religious following and a very limited production.
The terroir is different as well. You can say that the Left Bank generally lies on gravels which were washed down the River millennia ago from the the distant Pyrenees and the Massif Central. The Right Bank lies on soil that contains clay enriched with iron, limestone and sandy gravels.
Some people believe that it’s the iron that gives Pomerol wines their famous smooth richness. The wine regions of the Left Bank are protected from the Atlantic winds by the Landes Forest and both Banks benefit from a maritime climate due to the presence of the River.
Right Bank wines are usually made with a high percentage of Merlot (the notable exception being Cheval Blanc which uses Cabernet Franc) as the clay soils suit the Merlot grape to perfection. Right Bank wines are more fruit forward, are softer, more approachable when young and have less tannin than those of the Left Bank.
Left Bank wines tend to be dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon and since Cabernet Sauvignon has more intense flavours and tannin these wines tend to be stylistically bolder. The higher level of tannin in Cabernet Sauvignon gives Left Bank wines great structure and ageing potential.
Interestingly the most expensive and sought after wines in the world come from the Right Bank despite the ranks of First Growth châteaux on the Left Bank. Le Pin is considered by some to be the predecessor of garage wines. Only 500 – 700 cases of wine are produced making the wine hard to acquire due to low production and high international demand.
Pétrus is one of the most expensive wines in the world and is one of the most celebrated, receiving top scores from wine critics. Ausone’s production levels even less than those of Petrus and Ausone has become one of the most demanded and hard-to-find wines of Bordeaux. Cheval Blanc is famous for producing a legendary vintage in 1947 – an incredible wine so rare that it sends wine lovers and collectors alike into a frenzy.
As you can see the Right Bank wines are not so much the little brothers of the Left Bank and can holds their heads high amongst their peers. Liv-ex (the Fine Wine Exchange) reported recently that the 1998 vintage in Bordeaux is throwing up some surprises concerning the Right and Left Banks.
They found that if you discounted the First Growths and examined the prices of the top scoring wines (90+ Parker points) from both sides of the river from January 2004 to January 2010 that the Right Bank significantly outperformed the Left.
The Left Bank wines were Mission, Ducru, Leoville Barton, Palmer and Leoville Las Cases; the Right were Angelus, Pavie, L’Evangile, Conseillante and Vieux Chateaux Certan). Over the full 6 year time-frame the Left Bank still comes out on top, with a return of 102% compared to 65%.
However over the past year, the market seems to have turned, the Right Bank are now some of the market’s best performers. Whether this turns out to be a trend for other Right Bank vintages remains to be seen but it is food for thought.