On a recent trip to Bordeaux, (for pleasure, not business) we took an afternoon off from some perhaps less than civilised drinking to have a little wine tasting, the subject of which could only really have been one thing. With a limited amount time and an audience with an unknown level of interest and patience (both of which turned out to be significant), I wanted the tasting to have one main focus. Touching a little upon the geographical, historical and commercial differences between the two banks, I pioneered a world first technique in demonstrating the role of the Gironde in splitting Bordeaux wine in half. At first it was received with a little bewilderment, but very soon after it became, I understand, cystal clear (see photo below). I settled, however, upon the principal resulting stylistic difference between the two, a difference which has been known to give rise to the question, “Are you a left bank or a right bank kind of guy?”.
The Left bank (the side of the Medoc, Haut-Medoc and Graves) produces Cabernet Sauvignon led wines, whereas the Right bank (the side of Fronsac, St. Emilion, and Pomerol) produces Merlot based wines.
With this in mind, and in order to illustrate the difference between the two main red grapes I explained their distinguishing qualities and flavours characteristics. I subsequently got people thinking about what flavours and qualities they were picking up in the wines during the tasting and to choose one side of the room based upon whether they though it was a RIGHT BANK – MERLOT based wine, or a LEFT BANK – CABERNET based wine. For the first wine a pretty much even split room showed it wasn’t as easy as it may seem and to be fair, with the cheaper and less well made, often over oaked, wines it is more difficult; what’s more they had been nothing to compare it to.
Moving through the wines, in terms of cost, quality status and regional prestige whilst keeping their style distinctly Merlot or Cabernet based, people very quickly picked up and started to realise which qualities were attributed to what grape. By the time the wine quality reached had reached its peak (with a fine St. Julien and an aged Grand Cru St. Emilion) I honestly felt comfortable that most people had grasped the difference between the two. The tell-tale signs for many seemed to be in the softness of the Merlot (or rather the tannic, acidity and structure of the Cabernet), which had only made harder and compounded by the use of oak (also providing tannins and structure). When the final two wines were poured and analysed, I’m pleased to say that everyone picked the right side – OK, all except one, but I’m sure he felt suitably embarrassed.
If the final two rounds of almost flawless bank-choosing was anything to go by, then the afternoon had been a great success but all the more impressive for me to see was how everyone had started to engage, interact and vocalise what they were getting from the wine, be it:
- Picking out flavours and characteristics.
- Trying to deduce from them what they thought the wine was.
- Feeling like they could justify why they did or why didn’t like the wines.
Whilst 1) was most encouraging to hear, 2) was most rewarding and competitive to see, for me, 3) will always be the most important. Whether you know it’s right or left bank isn’t that important, whereas being forced to think about what characteristics, flavours and qualities are coming across you are in a valid position to consider and express 3) and only then you can really start to develop you understanding in wine, communicate your opinions about wine and broaden your experience of wine. Onwards and upwards.
We tasted the following in order, here with an indication of supermarket price:
Left bank Bordeaux Superieur, ~€3 LEFT
Right bank Bordeaux Superieur, ~€3 RIGHT
Fronsac, ~€4 RIGHT
Graves, ~€5 LEFT
Puisseguin St. Emilion, ~€11 RIGHT
Cru Borgeouis, Haut-Medoc ~€11 LEFT
Les Fiefs de Lagrange, St. Julien, ~€25 LEFT
St. Emilion Grand Cru, ~€18 RIGHT