Wednesday, June 22, 2011

BORDEAUX: Right (Bank)where it Started

It has been described as 'another world' when compared to the neighboring Left Bank. Here, in its complex soils of limestone, alluvial sands, clay and gravel, there are small rural villages with even smaller wine estates.  Known as the Libournais wine region, it is on the Right Bank of the Gironde Estuary and Garonne River where composition of soil and aspect, where terrior really matters.  There are world class winemakers here who produce great growths(crus) in predominantly limestone soils, like Chateau Ausone and Chateau Canon. And, yet others growing in mostly gravel(graves) soils, such as Cheval Blanc, and scores of others with acclaim producing world class wines in clay soils.  It is all about pairing the right grape with the right location, and then blending.  Even as these wines are blended red varieties, as with the Left Bank, here it is all about the Merlot grape, the most widely planted grape of the Bordeaux.

Hillsides(cotes) cultivated since the Roman occupation, the region of the Right Bank is an exposed landscape of vine; a patchwork of ancient soils that has only come to world class prominence in the last 40 years. It was not until the middle of the 19th century that bridges even crossed the Garonne and Dordogne rivers, and national rail opened markets beyond Northern Europe to the Libournais.  For all of the Medoc's venerable polish, this region was throughout the centuries of vine, a backwater. Due east of the Haut-Medoc's St. Julien appellation lie the hay fields and vineyards of Blaye, surrounded by the Cotes de Blaye and the Cotes de Bourg to the south  These are some of the oldest vineyard sites in all of Bordeaux, and today on its eroded hillsides and slopes produce generally serviceable, everyday blended red wines using just about all of the known 'Bordeaux' varietals.
Cotes de Blaye chateau

Fronsac AOC and the smaller Canon-Fronsac AOC appellations fan to the south, on the northern banks above the Dordogne. This region, with vineyards densely planted on its steep clay-limestone slopes, was regarded among the best of Bordeaux as late as the 19th century.  Today numerous Merlot producers of these appellations are emerging once again as a quality value region, favorably compared to their higher priced cousins further inland. A blended red wine region, these two appellations are eligible to use the combined AOC of Lalande-de-Pomerol, and may have late ripening Cabernet Sauvignon in their house cuve'e.

Going south, the esteemed wine regions of Pomerol AOC and the postcard medieval village of St. Emilion radiate out from the hills circling the up river port of Libourne. Here the interior foothills meet the coastal plains to the west, finding St. Emilion AOC sandwiched between two plateaus, the St. Martin and the St. Christophe. The walled town itself sits on cleft in a deep limestone plateau, surrounded by ancient sand and gravel soils. Having a more continental climate than the Medoc, early ripening Merlot thrives here, as does Cabernet Franc, locally known as Bouchet, on the regions more gravely soils. Barely 6 kilometers North, 800 hectares of clay rich iron pan vineyards define the appellation of Pomerol, and perhaps noble Merlot as well.  In petite Pomerol, which lies on the pilgrim route to Santiago,  more than 80% of grape growers here farm less than 2 acres of vineyard.
St. Emilion's Jurade

Regional AOC Classification and their regulations came to Pomerol and St. Emilion in 1936, with other regional communes to follow. It took 20 years more for the Syndicat Viticole to classify the best estate wines of St. Emilion, but uniquely with the intention to update the list every ten(10) years. Importantly, the St. Emilion Classification of 1955 identified their best fifteen(15) Premier Grand Crus in two(2) categories: A & B. Below them sat 57 Grand Crus Classe's, which has added and demoted chateau over the years based on peer tasting panels as recently as 2006. Confusingly, the region also has a St. Emilion Grand Crus AOC category, which is an appellation rather than a classification, and has been awarded to over 200 chateau that have applied. Even as they remain among the best of Bordeaux, wines of Pomerol AOC do not have a classification system. Perhaps established as a contemporary reaction to the styling of its regions wines, a movement among the micro-chateaus with limited funding spawned the independent vin de garage or Garariste in the last decades of the 20th century.  These small producers saw meteoric and perhaps unwarranted price increases for their small lots of polished Merlot-based wines.

Surrounding St. Emilion are four(4) satellite communes who typically attach noteworthy 'St, Emilion' to their names: St. Georges, Montagne, Lussac, and Puissguin. While these rural vineyards have similar soil composition to their better known neighbors, it is said that they generally are thinner, rougher and lack the power of the best of their region.  Across the Dorgone lies a land between two 'seas', Entre-Deux-Mers AOC, producing mostly dry white wines in one of Bordeaux's largest regions.  Throughout its scattering of fortified towns there are vineyards mixed among other crops where almost everything grows.  Today, Entre-Deux-Mers and its producers are responsible for most of the wine sold under the classifications of the generic Bordeaux AOC and Bordeaux Supe'rieur AOC labels.

From the graveled banks of the Dorgone, across rolling hills to the waters of the Garonne to the south, the Entre-Deux-Mers  has historically been a strategic landscape in controlling the fortunes of the region. Important AOC's here include Graves de Vayres, which has been producing fruity red wines of quality since the Roman occupation, and the sweet wines of  Sainte-Croix-du-Mont AOC on its southern flank across the Garonne from Sauternes. The regions better wines can also carry the Premie'res Cotes de Bordeaux AOC designation.

The best of the Right Bank, situated on their micro production estates and unique terroir, are among the most expensive, age-worthy wines in the world today.  These high profile wine estates are surrounded by many quality controlled producers, banded together in cooperatives or who today go it alone into the markets outside of their regions. What we know is that the wine farms of the Right Bank produce an ocean of good wine.  While a few continue to push the price boundaries of an international marketplace, informed consumers can navigate the landscape and still find benchmark quality and good value from appellations like Canon-Fronsac and Cotes de Bourg...Right(Bank) where it Started!


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