Bordeaux wine: la Rive Gauche

A few days ago we talked about Bordeaux wines and their significance on the international wine scene. However, we looked at only one of the regions, the Right Bank or Rive Droite of the Dordogne River.

Today we are looking at the other side, the Left Bank or Rive Gauche of the Garonne River. But before we start, how about a little review and a look at where we are?

Vino Burdeos Rive Gauche

Bordeaux is the capital of New Aquitaine, and is located in the southwest of France. It has a privileged position that means it enjoys a moderate and stable climate that is largely down to its proximity to the Atlantic coast and the influence of the two large rivers that run through: the Dordogne and the Garonne, which also function as a natural border between the denominations that make up this wine region.

In Bordeaux, there are around fourteen thousand winemakers and approximately 120 thousand hectares dedicated to the vine. To put that in context, the current area covered by vineyards is roughly equivalent to twice the size of Madrid. Six red varieties are grown here: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Carménère, Malbec and Petit Verdot; and seven white varieties: Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadelle, Colombard, Merlot Blanc, Sauvignon Gris and Ugni Blanc.

The left bank of the Garonne river is home to the following sub-zones: Médoc, Graves and Sauternes. Three names that are very familiar to any wine lover and three of the areas that have produced some of the most expensive and well-known wines worldwide.

But which bank is better? Rive Gauche vs Rive Droite

Obviously one of the things both sides of the river share is the production of excellent quality wines, as well as both predominantly focussing on red wines. That said, these two sub-zones are like two sisters who share certain genetics, but they are definitely their own people.

The main differences lie in the predominant soil types, the main grape variety and the style of red wines they produce.

On the Right Bank, which we talked about a few days ago, there are different kinds of soils but calcareous and clayey soils predominate.

This feature makes Merlot the star of the show in single-variety and coupage wines that are made on the Dordogne’sRive Droite”, for example, the legendary Petrus wine, which is considered to be the best wine in the world. The Merlot grape has a shorter growing cycle and ripens better in this area, but on the Left Bank, Cabernet Sauvignon is the undisputed protagonist.

This area is made up of mostly sandy and gravelly soils, so much so that the name Graves, one of the sub-zones, means “gravel land”, and is named as such because of how much of it there is in those vineyards. Graves is the only region in Bordeaux that is famous for making the three main types of wine: reds, dry whites and sweet wines.

As we said before, production on both river banks is dominated by red wine. It is often said that the right bank gives rise to more subtle and elegant wines and the left bank produces more powerful and long-lasting wines.

Wine made in Bordeaux is governed by a plot quality classification system that has been used since 1855 and was created following an order from Napoleon III on the occasion of the International Exposition in Paris.

This classification records 5 Premier Grand Cru, the highest distinction that a top quality plot can aspire to. These 5 extraordinary vineyards are located on the Left Bank, four of them in MédocChâteau Lafite Rothschild, Château Margaux, Château Latour and Château Mouton Rothschild, and one in Graves, Château Haut-Brion.

Many critics think this classification has become obsolete and that its major fault is how it seems to ignore other great winemaking estates on the Right Bank, such as Saint-Émilion or Pomerol, the birthplace of legendary wines that are world-renowned for their quality like Cheval Blanc or Petrus.

Museo del vino de Burdeos


Lucio Anneo Seneca, Roman philosopher and politician said: “Wine washes away our worries, cleanses the soul right to the bottom and promises the healing of sadness.” A resounding truth to which we add: “…and if the wine is sweet, the cure will be more effective.”

It seems that this type of wine lacks the recognition it deserves, except for glorious exceptions like the wines from Sauternes, a sub-zone that is also located on the Left Bank, which is world-renowned for the exceptional sweet wines made there and where the flagship is, without a doubt, Château d’Yquem.

This legendary winery dates back around 400 years. During the Middle Ages, the property belonged to the King of England, who was also the Duke of Aquitaine. A century and a half later, in 1593, Jacques Sauvage, descendant of a local noble family, received feudal tenure of Yquem and in 1711, during the reign of Louis XIV, the family became the owner. In 1785, Françoise Joséphine de Sauvage d’Yquem married Count Louis Amédée de Lur-Saluces, who died 3 years later in a riding accident. The young widow took over the estate and proved to have a great aptitude for management, turning the property into a real business with an international reputation.

It was in 1855 when, thanks to the quality classification of Bordeaux wines created by request of Emperor Napoleon III, the estate was designated as the first and main Cru Supérieur, which also served as a kind of posthumous tribute to the great work of Françoise Joséphine de Sauvage, “the lady of Yquem”.

A treasured wine created as a result of disease

Botrytis Cinerea, also known as noble rot, is a grey fungus that can remain dormant for a long time and then it develops when it finds the right environmental conditions to germinate and for its spores to be carried through rain and wind. When it infects the vines, it dehydrates the grapes which causes them to accumulate sugars in response.

The location of the Château d’Yquem vineyards is susceptible to attack by noble rot. Along with their high standards, this is where their success lies. At Yquem, the harvest is carefully scheduled. They pass through the vineyards up to ten times to select and pick only the “botrytised” grapes and those with the quantity of sugar needed to produce their wines. A bad harvest will never be labelled under the name of Yquem as it is considered unworthy. This only happened 9 times in the twentieth century, and once in 2012. Bottles of Château d’Yquem can reach very high prices. It is thought that one vine with Botrytis is needed to make just one glass of wine.

The result is exceptional. True world-renowned wine jewels that encapsulate a whole garden of aromas with fruity souvenirs of apricot, quince, pineapple, fig, lychee, grapefruit and bitter orange and also floral and herbal aromas of roses, saffron, verbena or roasted coffee beans and vanilla.

Vino con podredumbre noble

The sweet wine of Sauternes and, especially that of Château d’Yquem, has great admirers. They say that in 1790, Thomas Jefferson ordered thirty dozen bottles (360) of Yquem for himself and for George Washington. In 1859, the Grand Duke Constantine, brother of Tsar Alexander I of Russia paid 20 thousand francs for a 900-litre barrel of Yquem, corresponding to four times its current price at that time. And, in the eighties, a French astronaut, lover of the wines of his country, decided to take small bottles of Yquem with him on a mission to outer space.

It is difficult to choose between the wines from the Left Bank of the Garonne River or the Right Bank of the Dordogne River. In any case, whether they are estates with wines classified as Premier Cru, or wines “without château” but recognised worldwide for their quality; whether they are red, white or sweet, what is clear is that Bordeaux is the largest production area of the most elegant, most expensive and most desired wines in the world. But don’t be put off, there is also some great quality Bordeaux wine available for a reasonable price so that you can immerse yourself in this significant and historical wine region without having to remortgage the house, sell your car or risk your life. We promise!


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