Now we’re going to journey to the left side of the Gironde River where Cabernet Sauvignon reins as king. Known as the “Left Bank” of Bordeaux, the region is divided into two main regions—Médoc and Graves—though these appellations are further divided. The Left Bank is surrounded by a large coniferous forest, which shields the region from the Atlantic Ocean.
Under the Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855, wines from Médoc are classified as Premiers Crus (“first growth”), Deuxièmes Crus (“second growth”), Troisièmes Crus (“third growth”), Quatrièmes Crus (“fourth growth”), and, finally, Cinquièmes Crus (“fifth growth”). There is also one addition to the Premier Crus classification from outside the Médoc region: Chateau Haut-Brion, which is from the Graves region.
If you remember from our earlier blog post “Bordeaux Part 1: “A-Mill-i-on” Reasons to Drink Saint-Émilion,” the classification for Saint-Émilion wines depends on quality based on the judging of previous vintages and is updated every 10 years. Unlike Saint-Émilion, however, Médoc’s five classifications are based on the estate’s reputation and trading price, a practice which dates back to 1855. In that day, they thought that reputation and trading price were directly related to the wine’s quality. There have only ever been two changes to the list of classifications—one in 1856 and another in 1973. Consequently, this classification system receives a lot of criticism because people feel it is outdated and does not accurately represent the quality of wine making from each estate.
Médoc spans over the northwestern part of Bordeaux and is one of the more popular appellations of Bordeaux. Médoc primarily focuses on red wine production, using Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. This results in very full-bodied reds with high tannins, low acidity, and with medium to high levels of alcohol. Combined with the oceanic climate and the great variation in soil types, you get really distinct character in the wine. The area tends to be wetter than other parts of Bordeaux, but the soil consists mostly of deep gravel and sandstone, so the water drains really well and the vines are seldom flooded.
As if it were not confusing enough, the Médoc area is then subdivided into a northern and southern region. In the north lies the Médoc AOC, or Bas Médoc. In the south is the highly famed Haut-Médoc. Together, these compose the Médoc region, which is located north of the city of Bordeaux……. Confusing, huh?
In the north, the area known as Médoc AOC (formerly Bas-Médoc), is becoming increasingly obscure. Additionally, the name that was formerly used, Bas Médoc, is seldom used today and this region now is just simply called Médoc AOC. The soils of this appellations tend to be more clay than sandstone or gravel, which is better for growing Merlot. However, the climate and other factors are those preferred by the Cabernet Sauvignon species. So Cabernet Sauvignon from the Médoc AOC tend to be more bland and undistinguished from its neighboring subregions.
In the southern region, we have Haut-Médoc, which is an important AOC because it houses four highly acclaimed sub-appellations known as Margaux, Paulliac, Saint-Estèphe, and Saint Julien. There are also Listrac and Moulis, but these are small and rarely talked about (so don’t worry about those).
Outside of these highly esteemed sub-appellations is the Haut-Médoc, and it is the largest appellation in the Left Bank. Unfortunately, wines from this appellation are often nicknamed the “Poor Man’s Bordeaux”; however, there are some stellar, lower priced wines to be found. The area is diverse, and the terroir consists mainly of gravel and sandstones. There are a few pockets of clay and limestone. Due to the area’s large size, the climate actually differs between its northern and southern parts.
The most northern, and largest, sub-appellation of Haut-Médoc is known as Saint-Estèphe, and its wines are considered “true terroir” wines (i.e., a wine that is true to its terroir). The wines from this nine-s square-mile area are finer in acidity, tannic structure, and color than other Médoc wines. As the wines mature, the fruit becomes stronger, resulting in a more rounded and more elegant wine. These wines can be cellared for 20 to 40 years. There are no Premier Crus from Saint-Estèphe, even though some argue that a few of their Deuxièmes Crus are more than worthy of the distinction.
As we move south, we come upon the sub-appellation known as Paullac, which is just under nine square miles. Paullac is most known for its three Premier Crus: Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Latour, and Chateau Mouton Rothschild. Though the appellation produces three of the five Premier Crus, wines from Paullac are also extensively classified in the Deuxièmes and TroisièmesCrus, making this sub-region one of the TOP spots for red wine in the WORLD! Wines from this region are considered to be the quintessence of Bordeaux wines. Paullac wines are known to be big, deep, and intense with notes of dark berries, black currants, plum, pencil shavings, and cigar box. Unfortunately, very rarely can a 750ml bottle of Paullac’s juice be purchased for under $50.
Just below the praise-worthy Paullac region lies the appellation of Saint Julien, which covers a mere six square miles. Due to its proximity to Paullac, Saint Julien shares a common terroir with its northern neighbor, which consists of gravel and sandstone. But, due to a slightly different climate, the wines tend to have more of a cedar character to them. There are no Premier Crus from this region, but many of the wines occupy the Deuxièmes and Troisièmes Crus spots and can be had for less than Paullac wines, albeit still highly priced.
Towards the southern part of Haut-Médoc lies our final sub-appellation, Margaux. It is the smallest of the four main sub-appellations, covering less than three square miles. In this area, the vineyards are packed tightly together, and they produce softer, more approachable wines compared to the other three sub-appellations. But don’t think its approachability means these wines aren’t serious. Margaux has its very own Chateau in the Premier Cru Classe: Chateau Margaux. They also have the most wines in the Deuxièmes Cru Classe than any other area of Médoc.
We have not been fortunate enough to try wines from most of the appellations. Many are simply too expensive. So if you have tried wines from any of these areas (or just have something you’d like to say!), please leave your impressions in the Comments! We would love to hear your thoughts.