As you continue your wine investment journey with Vindome, you will begin to become familiar with a few terms. We have already discussed the 1855 Classification in length, so I would hope that any regular readers don’t need any clarification on what First, Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth growths mean. We have mentioned wine regions many times, plus appellations, flavours, tastes and everything else in almost every post on here. Hopefully, if you’ve done your reading, these terms should hold no secrets for you.
So, when I was thinking about what was missing, it came to me that novice (and let’s face it, even some experienced) wine collectors, you might not understand the difference between the right and left banks in Bordeaux. Why do some wines from essentially the same region taste, age, and look so very different? And there was me, just bandying around the terms as if you are all James Suckling or Jancis Robinson or someone.
Left vs Right Bank Bordeaux explained
So, let’s start with the basics. Found in the southwest of France, Bordeaux is divided into two main sections by the river Gironde – right bank and left bank. Two smaller rivers, the Dordogne and the Garonne feed into it. If you look at the ensemble, you’ll see that the left bank is the part that is south of the river, and the right bank is the northern part. The part in the middle is known as Entre Deux Mers and produces some spectacular wines, particularly whites.
Because of the topography, soil and style of the areas, grapes thrive differently on each side. Interestingly enough, the soil in Bordeaux is relatively poor and makes it difficult to grow anything other than grapes. And it is precisely this type of meagre terroir that makes Bordeaux so very special regarding its eponymous export.
The topography of the Left Bank is generally flatter and has a gravel layer and limestone below the soil. This gravelly soil is perfect for draining, which means the vine roots have to reach far down to reach the water beneath the surface. Grapes from the Left Bank tend to be smaller and more concentrated in taste – ergo, give more flavour.
Right, Bank soil has a limestone surface with a higher clay density. There is also less gravel, so grapes are juicier, producing wines that typically have more tannin and a larger overall structure. Wines from the Right Bank have lower levels of tannin and acidity, a softer mouthfeel, and higher fruit content.
Should I invest in Right or Left Bank Bordeaux Wine?
The Left Bank of Bordeaux is home to some of the most famous appellations (areas often referred to by their initial AC or Appellation Contrôlée). These include Saint-Estephe, Pauillac, Saint-Julien, Margaux, Pessac-Leognan, Barsac and of course, Sauternes. This side of the river is famous for both red and white wines, with Sauternes being mainly well-known for its sweet wines.
If these names seem familiar to you, then it’s because you have been doing your homework; some of the world’s most excellent wines come from Bordeaux’s beautiful Left Bank. Just think of the famous five firsts to begin with: Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Latour, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Mouton-Rothschild and Chateau Haut-Brion. You should not need me to tell you that these wines are the top rung of the fine wine investment ladder, not to mention command some of the heftiest price tags on the secondary market. These wines are consistently sought after by drinkers worldwide, which allows the ROI of first growths to perform steadily and reliably.
But, prestige comes with a price tag, and these are expensive wines (although still relatively cheaper than their Burgundy counterparts). The entry point is always high, but sales and ageing are more or less guaranteed. Investing in a First Growth is truly a matter of you getting what you pay for.
The Right Bank is a bit more complicated: main appellations include St. Emilion, Pomerol, and Cotes de Bordeaux, but the right bank also has several satellite appellations, such as Cotes de Castillon, Lalande de Pomerol, Fronsac, Canon Fronsac, and Bordeaux Superieur.
And, he who says Right Bank and investment in the same sentence naturally says legendary wine producers such as Chateau Petrus, Chateau Cheval Blanc, Chateau Ausone and Chateau La Fleur. These too, are expensive wines, but it is interesting to note that Right Bank wines outperformed Left Bank in Q2 2022 – a sign of the power and longevity of top brands. Several Ausone vintages (2010, 2014, 2017) are among the top risers.
Which grapes grown on the Right Bank and Left Banks of Bordeaux
Perhaps a better title for this would have been Cabernet versus Merlot. Cabernet Sauvignon is the dominant red grape variety on the Left Bank, while the Right Bank focuses more on Merlot. This means that the Cabernet-based Left Bank wines tend to be a bit more tannic, while the Merlot-based Right Bank wines tend to have more restrained tannins.
Left Bank wines are Cabernet Sauvignon dominant blends and are the spiritual home of the famous Bordeaux Blend. While Cabernet is undoubtedly the main grape, some Merlot is found as well as Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Franc which serve as the supporting components for the winemakers. These wines tend to have more tannin (ergo longevity) and a more robust, muscular structure than their Right Bank counterparts.
Right Bank blends are mostly Merlot. We have noticed that we are increasingly finding vineyards with Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. Six new varieties of grape have recently been approved to help combat climate change. We expect exciting things from the newly approved varieties (four reds – Arinarnoa, Castets, Marselan and Touriga Nacional and two whites – Alvarinho and Liliorila) over the next few years.
White wines of the Left and Right Bank
Let’s not forget the whites. Most dry Bordeaux Blanc is produced in the Pessac Leognan (Left Bank) appellation. The most well-known producer is Château Haut Brion, who makes some stunning white, and is easily the most sought-after in the region (not to mention the only white is the First Growths). On the Right Bank, Château Monbousque, Château Valandraud, and Château Cheval-Blanc are among the top producers of white wines.
However, the undeniable superstar of Bordeaux Blanc is Sauternes. Without a doubt, Chateau d’Yquem. Because of its superior ageing and slow growth, Chateau d’Yquem is the perfect wine when choosing an investment opportunity that offers substantial gains over a long period. From a tasting point of view, the best vintages mature at about the 100-year mark, so if you are looking for something for immediate drinking or return, we advise against this lovely white. Wine investors should note that in 2006, a single lot of Château d’Yquem containing every vintage produced from 1860 until 2003 was sold for US$1.5 million, still one of the highest price wine lots ever purchased. Rivalled only by Cheval Blanc in terms of sustained growth potential, this is a wine that will keep on earning as long as the cork stays in!