Wine 101: French Wine Regions: Bordeaux: Right Bank

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Wine 101: French Wine Regions: Bordeaux: Right Bank

This episode’s sponsor of “Wine 101” is sponsored by Talbott Vineyards, home of the legendary Sleepy Hollow Vineyard. Sounds mysterious, right? Sleepy Hollow is famous for producing acclaimed Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. OK, this is where things get really wild. Every day, the vineyard gets shrouded in cooling fog from the Pacific Ocean. It’s all good, though. The grapes ripen more slowly in a patch and end up packed with concentrated flavor and color. To try Talbott Vineyards’ wine, visit  TheBarrelRoom.com.

In this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair’s tastings director explores Bordeaux’s Right Bank. This is a supplemental episode to the Season 1 Bordeaux appellation breakdown. Here we go into some history as well as the general styles of the more celebrated communes.

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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers. I just found out that it takes a drop of water 90 days to travel the entire Mississippi River. Who figured that out?

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. That’s right, and how are you doing? Okay, so, last week we did the Left Bank. Today, we’re diving deep into the Right Bank. It’s such a generalization. Let’s get into this and why the Right Bank is so different.

Oh, the Right Bank, this one is going to be so much fun. Oh, and by the way, as with the last episode, if you want a nice breakdown of the entire Bordeaux region to get a sense of what’s going on here in this episode, go ahead to Season 1 to the Bordeaux episode where I break it all down in about 20 minutes. Here, in the United States, we talk about the Left and Right Bank a lot. Even if you don’t know much about Bordeaux, you heard about the Left and the Right Bank. Sometimes, I find it just a little bit misleading — not really, but kind of in that they’re not right across from each other.

The wines of the Left Bank are just in from the estuary of the Atlantic Ocean. Then, as we talked about in the original Bordeaux episode, that is the Gironde estuary which splits off into two rivers: the Dordogne and the Garonne. The Dordogne is the northernmost tributary, or the river, that breaks off from the estuary, but this is where it gets a little bit confusing because just across the estuary from the Médoc is the Right Bank. Left Bank, Right Bank, it makes sense. Right across from Médoc is a place called Bourg and a place called Blaye.

Those appellations, which you can listen to in the Bordeaux episode in Season 1, are not really what people are talking about when they talk about the Right Bank. What they’re talking about is much further down the river. As the Dordogne starts to really snake around the landmass, it passes by a town called Libourne, and this right here, and inland, is what people consider the Right Bank.

Now, the Right Bank is all of it, all the way from Blaye, Bourg, all the way down. But when we talk about the Right Bank, it’s this concentrated area of fine wine that we’re talking about. As we go inland, from the town of Libourne, we start to enter a rise in the earth. Basically, what’s happening is there’s a plateau just surrounding Libourne, and on this plateau is a famous little medieval town called Saint-Émilion. It looks like your typical, beautiful, quaint, medieval town, and it has a spired church.

Literally surrounding the border of this ancient medieval town are vineyards. It is an absolutely stunning place. So stunning that, in 1999, it became a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s actually so impressive that the tourism is so insane here that the downtown area no longer really has inhabitants, so much as it has businesses and boutiques, which is fine because it’s an absolutely beautiful little town. This plateau sits on a bunch of limestone.

With these Bordeaux episodes, I’m really getting into a lot of soil stuff here, which I usually don’t get into on this podcast, but I’m going to tell you right here now, we have a soil episode coming up. That’ll put a lot of this into context. Once that episode comes out, maybe come back and listen to this episode and the other Bordeaux episode to get a sense of all this stuff.

Saint-Émilion is its own AOC, and there are other AOCs and sub-appellations surrounding it. Again, the Bordeaux episode will break all that down.

The reason why people say Left and Right Bank — they want to distinguish this stuff — is because of the soil. The presence of limestone is great anywhere, but there’s also sand and clay, and because of this element of soil, clay — Merlot loves clay and because of the amount of clay in this area, Merlot tends to be the dominant variety and then Cab Franc. A lot of the wines that come from the Right Bank are Merlot-based with Cab Franc, and then some other stuff — other stuff, other blending varieties, like Malbec sometimes.

Malbec is around. It was brought to this area, they think, by a winemaker from the Cahors region. I have a Malbec episode. I think it’s in Season 2. Go ahead and listen to that.

Merlot is dominant here because of the soil composition. In 1956, there was this huge damaging frost in Bordeaux, and after that, a lot of vines died. There’s a lot of replanting going on. Cab Franc is absolutely going to hang out in the little gravel areas of this part of Bordeaux because there is gravel here, because if it’s on one side of the river, it’s on the other side of the river, of course. It was thought that Merlot was better in the sandier soils that go down towards the Dordogne of the plateau. So Merlot was kind of just like, “I got this, guys.”

When we talk about Bordeaux, then we also immediately go to the Médoc situation because of the 1855 classification. The Right Bank is not like the Left Bank in that the Left Bank is — we talked about all the power there. You had the owners, the brokers, the merchants, and all of that. Here, the Right Bank, Saint-Émilion, its satellite regions, and beyond is more — I don’t want to say bucolic? Maybe the word is not bucolic, but they’re more scattered, there’s more room. They’re not as packed. There’s a lot of talk when you’re researching this area, that it wasn’t until the 18th century that this area really came into prominence. That ignores a ton of history.

It’s said to have been founded by a man named Decimus Magnus Ausonius. He was a poet and an administrator. I’m not really sure what that means, but he was born in this area in Bordeaux, and he retired in this area of Bordeaux. And actually, one of the most famous châteaus in Saint-Émilion, Château Ausone, is a nod to him. It’s said that he named the town after — it was a religious thing. It was Saint Aemilianus, which eventually became Émilion. Again, by the way, I’m really bad at pronouncing French. I’m sorry.

Before that, the ancient Roman footprint is really big here. There is a Roman tradition here that lasted for quite some time. I don’t think it happens anymore, but there are these ancient ditches or trenches that are dug into the limestone around this area. Then they were filled with earth and planted with fruit trees to help support vines. To this day, you can still see some of these, but the thing is, they’re not ancient Rome age. They’re a little bit newer because, I think, through the 1930s, they were still using this stuff in places of Saint-Émilion.

The big Roman influence here is in Pomerol. Pomerol, by the way — the name Pomerol is shrouded in mystery, but they believe that Pomerol, or pomme, which means “apple” in French, was also an old word meaning “something bearing seed.” Because of the land of Pomerol, the sprawling sort of farmland of Pomerol, it’s thought that it was a poly-cultural agricultural society. What’s even more important than that is that Pomerol was a crossroads. It had these two very important Roman roads that were a staging area for a pilgrimage to a place in northwestern Spain, specifically in Galicia, in a town called Santiago de Compostela.

There’s this massive church that was destroyed at one point and was built back after Muslim rule, and it was a Christian pilgrimage to defend Christianity against the Muslim world.

Whatever. This staging ground was also a place where a very famous order of knights called the Knights of Malta — which exists today actually. They’re a humanitarian organization, but back in the day, they were these knights that actually built a hospital in Jerusalem that accepted all religions and all this stuff. They built up that way so that obviously we’re going to be in Pomerol.

These knights — this is about in the 13th century. By the 15th century, the pilgrimage thing died down and the knights stayed there and became farmers and vineyard owners, and built it up from there. You see how this stuff is starting to build and evolve. Because Romans were there, vines were there, wine was there. By the end of the 13th century, the town of Saint-Émilion became an independent charter. This is when they start developing organizations surrounding wine, specifically — I don’t know how to pronounce this really well. I think it’s called the Jurade.

This is where we start seeing the whole wine thing start becoming very important because the Jurade was a winemaking guild, and they were established to do two things: announcing the date of the harvest because it often changed from vintage to vintage and year to year. And they were also the body that maintained the quality of wine in the region. They’re pretty intense. They could actually destroy your wine if they thought that it was not worthy of the region. This actually happens to this day around harvest. I actually had a chance to witness this.

It’s a very formal ceremony with robes and trumpets. There is someone who goes up into the bell tower and announces the date of the harvest or announces the harvest, and then everyone just parties. Then, there are fireworks, and it’s absolutely a wonderful time. The Jurade is no longer such an integral part of the winemaking issue situation. They’re a promotional body now. You see the history here is just a little bit different even though it’s very close to the Médoc. What’s really cool is Saint-Émilion was one of the first regions in France, or I think the first region in France, to set up a wine syndicate or an organization of individuals coming together for a combined interest, which was in the late 19th century.

Because after the 18th century, the thing about Saint-Émilion and its surrounding regions is it benefited, not necessarily from the port town of Libourne, which it did, but it also benefited from northern France and selling wines that way. It had been making wine and establishing a reputation for quite some time. By the time 1884 comes around and the syndicate is created, it was because of the popularity of this area within the area that it’s in, or I should say within its nearest trading routes.

By 1931, the Right Bank has its own, well, Saint-Émilion in the surrounding area, and gets its own co-op, which really helps a lot of the smaller wine producers in the area. Then in 1936, the big deal happens where Saint-Émilion becomes its own AOC, and then everything else follows suit from there — the satellite region’s Blaye, Bourg, and everything else. One hundred years after the 1855 classification of the Médoc, in 1955, the Right Bank finally gets its own classification system, and man, it’s fine. It’s different. It’s more restrictive than the Médoc, but it’s really a fascinating classification system.

I’ve gone over the details in the Bordeaux episodes in Season 1, but something about this — different than the classification of the Médoc — is that even though the Médoc, in theory, can be changed, it never will. The classification for Saint-Émilion is assessed every 10 years. That creates a lot of drama. What’s really wild about this — it’s even crazier — is that in the Médoc, if you have a château with some vineyards and you buy a new parcel, you can integrate that parcel into your production. No problem. If you are in Saint-Émilion, and you buy new parcels, you have to vinify that parcel alone for 10 years to prove that it’s worthy to be incorporated into the production of your wine. That’s a little bit intense.

But I don’t know. What’s really great about this — it’s a lot of competition, a lot of drama, a lot of lawsuits. It’s nuts because, in Saint-Émilion, you can always be demoted or promoted. People that are demoted get mad and they try to sue, and then the promoted are like, “Well, that’s okay. I got promoted and they got demoted.” It’s wild. So you have this bucolic area with almost more scattered vineyards, and Saint-Émilion, which is the appellation that comes from Libourne — outside of Libourne onto the plateau. Then, if you go just north of that area of Saint-Émilion, there is a river called the Barbanne. I’m probably pronouncing that terribly, B-A-R-B-A-N-N-E.

Then, north of that, you have these satellite regions, which I talked about in the Bordeaux episode, that came around much, much later. That’s all in that classification system. Then you have Pomerol and Lalande-de-Pomerol, which is just a little bit northeast, where there’s no classification system at all. It’s completely disconnected from the Saint-Émilion situation. It’s part of the Right Bank and it’s Merlot-dominant. It’s just more of that. I mean, we’re talking, like, farmland and gently rolling hills — absolutely beautiful.

The thing is, Pomerol — there’s actually no town in Pomerol, whereas in Saint-Émilion, you have the town and the surrounding area. Pomerol doesn’t really have a town. There’s a church there, but no real town, which is awesome. A lot of these winemakers are a lot smaller. Like the châteaus — In Saint-Émilion, you’re going to see these big châteaus. There’s a classification system. In Pomerol, Pétrus is there, but it’s not a big château area. There are some very small winemakers there.

When I was in the Pomerol, I visited a winemaker who was still labeling her own wines with glue and corking them with a very old, like 18th-century, 19th-century cork machine. We actually got to help her out, which is really great. You’re sitting in these little homes and she was literally in her garage. This is an area where the garagistes became very popular in the early aughts — in the late ‘90s, early aughts — where these winemakers were going against classification and they were going against style. They were making their own style. It’s no longer a thing that much anymore, although there are still garagiste winemakers out there. You can ask your wine merchants about them.

The interesting thing about Pomerol is that it’s sprawling. And there’s a bunch of vineyards and small wineries that do command high prices. They’re absolutely phenomenal, which we’ll talk about in a second. There’s no co-op here, so it literally is a bunch of small winemakers trying to make something different than everybody else, and it works. The Pomerol area only became popular with us because of Robert Parker in the 1980s.

But there was a man, whose name I will butcher, named Jean-Pierre Moueix. I’m not really sure, M-O-U-E-I-X. In 1937, he was a négociant. He created a négociant company in Pomerol in 1937, and this really brought Pomerol to the fore. This is where the Right Bank becomes Saint-Émilion and Pomerol. Everything else around it is great, but these are the places that people start to seek out, especially Saint-Émilion and now Pomerol. As far as wine is concerned, it’s a little bit tough because this area was not human-made. This is somewhat of a chaotic mix of three or four different kinds of soils that vary, depending on where you are in this area: Saint-Émilion, Pomerol, and the surrounding areas.

Now the thing is, like I said earlier, it is primarily Merlot, from Blaye, Bourg, down to Pomerol, to its larger sister appellation, Lalande-de-Pomerol, into Saint-Émilion in the south, Merlot dominates. Depending on where the Merlot is grown depends on how much Cab Franc is grown because Cab Franc likes more gravelly soils. Merlot can handle clay and sand. So, depending on where you’re at — so, it’s very interesting.

I was reading about the satellite regions of Saint-Émilion, and there was a winemaker in the area that said, for him, it’s very hard to distinguish the subtleties between the different satellite regions. That’s the thing about our market. We’re talking about the Right Bank, Saint-Émilion, the satellite regions, Pomerol, and beyond. This is a very fun region to really, really explore, and to just find the ones that you love the most because the thing about this area is that the wines do not command the same prices as the Médoc. Yes, there are wines, like Château Ausone, Cheval Blanc, and Pétrus. They do command high prices, but the average price of a very good Saint-Émilion is going to be like 40 bucks.

It’s a really great region of Bordeaux. If you like the soft, suppleness of Merlot with the sort of racy acidity and peppery notes of Cab Franc, you’re going to be in heaven because the wines out of Saint-Émilion are absolutely beautiful. They’re elegant. They’re supple. They’re powerful. They’re somewhat age-worthy, but depending on where you’re getting your wine from, it can be different from château to château and from winemaker to winemaker.

I was in Pomerol and I had a wine that was very earthy — very earthy. Then, I went to another winemaker just down the road, and it was supple and elegant. That’s the beauty of Saint-Émilion and the Right Bank. You have that opportunity, financially, to really play around and have fun with it.

Okay, I hope this gave you a little bit of context to the Bordeaux episode. I love Saint-Émilion wine. I love wines from the Right Bank. I hope that came through. Don’t get me wrong, I love Saint-Estèphe. I love Saint-Julien. Actually, interestingly enough, Pomerol and Saint-Julien are the same sizes. It’s crazy.

Okay, we’ll talk next week. We’re going on the road.

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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 old 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, Darby 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.

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