Bordeaux: Right Bank vs Left Bank

rightbank,leftbank,wine,chateaux People & Places Articles
  • Thursday 21 August 2008

The Left Bank may have the most prestigious châteaux, but the Right Bank’s been getting all the plaudits. So which has more influence on the other, asks Margaret Rand.

The Left Bank may have the most prestigious châteaux, but the Right Bank’s been getting all the plaudits. So which has more influence on the other, asks Margaret Rand.

When Alain Raynaud, consultant winemaker to numerous Right Bank properties, says, ‘We’re more peasant on the Right Bank,’ it’s hard to know whether to take him seriously. There he is in his immaculately cut tweed jacket and a tie that probably came from Hermès, looking like a wealthy landowner at a Sunday drinks party. What he means is, of course, that he and his fellow Right Bank winemakers get their hands dirty. Whereas the Left Bank consists of châteaux worthy of the name – large, imposing and turreted, and very often owned by big, wealthy companies, big, wealthy families or zillionaires not from the wine world – on the Right Bank, the term ‘château’ is more likely to be a figure of speech than an architectural description, and the owner will live on the premises rather than in Paris.

Left Bank properties can be 50ha–80ha (hectares) or more; on the Right Bank, 5ha is pretty normal; 10ha substantial; 30ha exceptional. And yet these Right Bank serfs, supposedly with earth under their fingernails from toiling in their few miserable hectares day and night, are making the running in Bordeaux – sky-high prices are asked for wines that appear from nowhere, and names you’ve never heard of are now getting 98 points from Robert Parker. The spotlight has shifted, and you could be forgiven for thinking that a shadowy chill has fallen on the echoing salons of the Left Bank, as the millionaires struggle to catch up, struggle to copy the peasants across the river. For the first time, there is a sentiment that the Right Bank is exerting more of an influence on the Left Bank than vice versa.

So is it a revolution?

If it is, it started nearly 30 years ago. In 1979, Jacques Thienpont, together with his father and his uncle, bought a single hectare of gravel, sand and clay in Pomerol, and called the resulting wine Le Pin. Its success was not immediate; only in the 1990s did it start achieving the sort of prices that made headlines. In 1991, it was followed by Valandraud (2.5ha), in 1996 by La Mondotte (4.3ha) and Le Dôme (1.72ha): garage wines had arrived. And everything else instantly looked old-fashioned.

The reasons why garage wines happened on the Right Bank rather than the Left have been well rehearsed, and focus mainly on the lower price of land there. It was relatively easy at the time to find an affordable parcel in St-Emilion and, if it wasn’t that great, to make up for its shortcomings by extremely low yields, super concentration and super extraction. A return to age-old, artisanal methods was often also dictated by lack of cash and the small scale of the operation.

Such wine caught the Parker wave: the influence of his palate has been crucial in the rise of the Right Bank – as has his friendship with consultant Michel Rolland, with the latter’s enormous expertise in coaxing the best out of Merlot via late picking and ultra-lush textures. Garagistes, Parker and Rolland were an unbeatable trinity: growers across the river could only gawp in envy. But now everyone says that garage is dead.

So has power returned to the Left Bank? No. Everything in modern Bordeaux winemaking, according to Raynaud – lower yields, strict sorting of grapes, cold fermentation – started, as Angélus’ Hubert de Boüard testifies, on the Right Bank. The reason? The estates are smaller and it’s easier to do.

‘At Lascombes [the Médoc château where Raynaud was consultant], they said I couldn’t do these things because it was too big, but I did. And Merlot was always less important on the Left Bank. It came from the Right Bank and now it’s 40%–50% of the Left Bank vineyard. It shows better when young and it can age.’

The Right Bank showed that the world wanted richness, ripeness and concentration, and by doing so, set the agenda for modern claret. The Left Bank has certainly followed. Merlot has increased there, not least because the saleability of a vintage is determined initially by the en primeur tastings each spring, and if your wine looks lean and mean at that stage you won’t be able to charge so much for it.

But garage wines never happened on the Left Bank, did they? Well, there’s Marojallia in Margaux, launched in 1999 and made under the auspices of Muriel Andraud, wife of St-Emilion garagiste Jean-Luc Thunevin. And there’s Haut-Condissas, from a gravelly patch of vines at Rolland-de-By; Raynaud consults here.

Bernard Magrez also makes various micro-cuvées on the Left Bank – La Servitude Volontaire, La Sérénité, Magrez Tivoli – but I seldom hear them talked about. No doubt they sell instantly to Magrez customers. Both Marojallia and Haut-Condissas have won plaudits although, to my palate, Marojallia doesn’t taste like Margaux. Both, you notice, are made with Right Bank advice, and they’re not the only Left Bank properties to be bringing in high-class mercenaries from the other side. Right Banker Stéphane Derenoncourt consults for Smith-Haut-Lafitte and a handful of others in Pessac-Léognan; Rolland can be found at Phélan-Ségur, Loudenne, Lascombes, Léoville-Poyferré, Pontet-Canet, Smith-Haut-Lafitte, Malartic-Lagravière, Pape Clément and others; de Boüard consults at Pichon-Lalande and others.

But this is not a list of Merlot wannabes. Smith-Haut-Lafitte, for example, has no wish to emulate St-Emilion: yes, they’ve planted some Merlot where there was Cabernet Sauvignon before, but they’ve simply moved the Cabernet across the road, where it’s warmer. Nor is Pichon-Lalande, that most elegantly feminine of Pauillacs, about to turn into a muscular prizefighter. Boüard describes his work thus:

‘On the Right Bank, we can treat a vineyard like a garden; properties are small. On the Left Bank, they’re bigger, but I try to be more precise in the vineyard in terms of ripeness, though not as far as overripeness in Merlot. The risk of overripeness in Cabernet Sauvignon is nothing; I have never found an overripe Cabernet. So I try to push the ripeness. I have great respect for the terroir of the Left Bank; I just want to get greater expression of the terroir.’

Liliane Barton of Léoville-Barton says: ‘Not many on the Left Bank followed the Right Bank to extreme lushness and concentration. In 1998 and 1999, the Right Bank was getting high prices and the Left Bank was a bit jealous, but we never had the concept of following their ideas.’

Did people on the Left Bank never think about garage wines? ‘From 3am to 3.05am one morning when I couldn’t sleep,’ she said. ‘Garage wines are an abstraction: you can read about them but you can’t find them in the shops, so you can’t taste them. Even if garage wines had succeeded, the Left Bank probably wouldn’t have copied them because of the volume we produce.’

That’s another crucial difference that keeps the two sides apart: the Left Bank has a lot more wine to shift. Few properties can afford to be seen to be creaming off the top vats into a super-cuvée, because the rest of the wine would instantly be difficult to sell. They’ve got round the problem by putting less wine into the grands vins and much more into the second wines: in 2005, for example, Châteaux Margaux and Lafite contained just 40% of their respective total crops, and Haut-Brion and Latour were 45%. Mouton bucked the trend with 64%.

For Right Bank owners to go the whole hog and buy properties on the Left Bank is usually seen as more difficult: being bigger, they are generally rather expensive. But it does happen: the Cuvelier family, owners of Clos Fourtet in St-Emilion, have bought Poujeaux in Moulis. The money can also travel in the other direction: AXA Millésimes, owner of Pichon-Longueville among other properties, also owns Petit-Village in Pomerol. Bernard Magrez owns properties on both banks, notably Pape Clément in Pessac-Léognan and Fombrauge in St-Emilion. Pape Clément has become a muscular wine under the Magrez influence, very different to its former, elegant, seductive character. Perhaps he would not agree with Matthieu Cuvelier who says: ‘What’s expected from the Right Bank is different to what’s expected from the Left Bank; the level of concentration is different.’ And he would probably also disagree with Liliane Barton when she says: ‘A few years ago, the fashion was to have fashionable wine; now the fashion is specificity in wine; personality. That’s now the fashion on the Left Bank. And on the Right Bank it’s becoming more so.’

There’s a change for you: the Left Bank influencing the Right Bank. Is it really happening? Alain Raynaud denies that the Leftists ever influence the Rightists – ‘except for the reputation of the vintage. They produce more than us. So if the vintage is successful in the Médoc, it will be said to be successful all over Bordeaux.’

But if one looks at the wines produced in St-Emilion and Pomerol over the past few years, one sees huge extraction in the first years of this century – very tannic, chewy wines that are hard going when young. But then in 2005, they seemed a lot friendlier in youth, perhaps because of the glorious silkiness and perfume of the vintage. And in 2006, a year of potentially big, dry tannins, the Right Bank seemed to have taken its foot off the pedal: suddenly, the wines were looking more balanced than they had been for years.

‘Bordeaux is more classical now than 10 years ago,’ confirms Patrick Bernard of négociant Millésima; ‘it’s about balance and elegance rather than extraction.’

Bernard also suggests that the Right Bank is looking rather expensive compared to the Left: ‘We see people keeping on buying from the Left Bank, but the Right Bank increased its prices too fast; the market thinks it’s too expensive.’ Left Bank and Right Bank can’t really converge because they are structured so differently. Much of the Left Bank was planted in the 18th century or later, and was set up for export: large quantities of wine were handled by négociants selling to Britain

and other markets. (This is why some on the Right Bank see the Left Bank as a touch arriviste – ‘it takes five generations to become a gentleman in Pomerol,’ one Pomerol grower told me.) Négociants on the Right Bank had mostly moved to Bordeaux from the Corrèze, and sold small batches of wine to consumers.

Exports hardly featured. Now, most of the Right Bank négociants have closed (the big exception is JP Moueix) and growers either have to fight their way to the Left Bank négociants, who are only interested in the top wines, or find other ways of selling. The trio of garage, Parker and Rolland was so influential precisely

because most Right Bank wines were an unknown quantity: they were waiting to be discovered. To some people, they are still waiting. The secretary of a St James’s club joked to me once that St-Emilion was his members’ idea of a New World wine. They should meet Alain Raynaud; they’d probably like his jacket, too.

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