The very simple answer is that the Left Bank and Right Bank are two Bordeaux winemaking regions separated by an estuary and two rivers.
Situated on the west coast of France, Bordeaux is split in two by the Gironde Estuary, which divides into the Dordogne and Garonne rivers. When looking at a map of the region, the area to the north and right of the Gironde is the Right Bank and the areas below and to the left constitute the Left Bank.
More specifically, the Right Bank is the area to the north of the Dordogne river and the Left Bank is the area directly south of the Garonne River, both of which feed into the Gironde estuary that meets the Atlantic Ocean.
The joining of these three forms a shape like an upside down ‘Y’ with the two banks on either side and the area in between known as the ‘Entre-deux-Mers’.
The Left Bank encompasses the Médoc wine region north of Bordeaux. Its four best-known appellations – from north to south – are St-Estèphe, Pauillac, St-Julien and Margaux.
It also encompasses Haut-Médoc, Listrac-Médoc and Moulis-en-Médoc appellations. South of Bordeaux, the Left Bank includes Pessac-Léognan and Graves, plus Sauternes and Barsac sweet wines.
The Right Bank’s most famous appellations are Pomerol and St-Emilion, the latter of which has four ‘satellite’ appellations. These are Montagne-, Lussac-, Puisseguin- and St-Georges St-Emilion.
However, the Right Bank also encompasses Côtes de Blaye, Côtes de Bourg, Fronsac, Canon-Fronsac, Lalande de Pomerol, Francs Côtes de Bordeaux and Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux.
River dissections aside, there are several important distinctions between the banks, most notably the dominance of specific red grape varieties.
Cabernet vs Merlot
As ever in the wine world, there are exceptions. Château Clarke in Listrac-Médoc, for example, considers its soils more suited to Merlot in general. Its 2018 grand vin is 70% Merlot and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon.
The terroir is mostly flat with gravel topsoil and limestone underneath, although the composition can vary substantially from one vineyard to the next.
Wines typically have more tannin and a bigger overall structure than their Right Bank counterparts. Pauillac, in particular, has a reputation for producing powerful, muscular wines.
Right Bank wines are predominantly Merlot-based, with Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Petit Verdot used as blending components. Some estates have sought to increase their use of Cabernet Franc in recent years, for its ability to deliver freshness in the glass.
The terroir is comprised of a limestone surface with less gravel and more clay. It’s mostly flat with smaller vineyard plots than on the Left Bank, most notably in Pomerol. Estates manage an average holding of five hectares in size, while some Left Bank estates are more than 100ha.
The wines tend to be rich in fruit, softer in mouthfeel with less tannin and acid. While some top wines can be aged for many years, there are plenty of wines that are also enjoyable when young.
Top Left and Right Bank Bordeaux châteaux can produce extremely long-lived wines, particularly in the right vintage conditions.
You may sometimes hear critics speak of a ‘Right Bank’ or ‘Left Bank’ vintage, depending upon whether conditions have favoured later-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, which tends to ripen earlier.
However, the situation is often more complex, and can depend upon many variables, from soil types to cellar management. Plus, weather does not always neatly divide itself between the two banks.
1855 Classification vs St-Emilion Classification
There are several classification systems at play.
With close to 125,000 hectares of vineyards and as many as 60 separate appellations, Bordeaux is one of the most highly classified wine regions in the region.
We can’t do justice to the whole system here. But, alongside the appellation map, the Left Bank is home to the official 1855 Classification of the Médoc.
It’s a five-tier hierarchy, led by the five ‘first growths’ of Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Latour, Château Margaux, Château Haut-Brion and Château Mouton Rothschild.
Haut-Brion was included in the original 1855 list, drawn up for Emperor Napoleon III, even though it sits in Graves. Mouton was promoted to the top tier in 1973.
There are then second, third, fourth and fifth growth estates.
Further south, Sauternes producers also got a classification system in 1855, devised alongside the one in Médoc as part of celebrations around the Exposition Universelle de Paris that year. Producers were split into first and second growths – or Premiers and Deuxièmes crus classés – but Château d’Yquem was given special dispensation as a ‘Premier Cru Supérieur’.
The Left Bank is also home to the Cru Bourgeois classification, which was recently relaunched as a three-tier system. A classification for dry red and white Graves wines was devised in 1953 and finalised in 1959. It includes 16 cru classé estates, all of which sit inside the Pessac-Léognan appellation today.
On the Right Bank, you’ll find the St-Emilion Classification, first introduced in 1955.
Unlike the 1855 Classifications, this ranking is frequently reviewed, currently every 10 years. The most recent ranking was released in 2012, although it has been followed by several years of legal disputes. The next one is due in 2022.
In the 2012 list, 82 estates were divided into 64 Grand Cru Classé estates and 18 Premier Grand Cru Classé properties – themselves separated into ‘A’ and ‘B’ rankings. Château Angélus and Château Pavie joined Ausone and Cheval Blanc as Premier Grand Cru Classé A estates in 2012.
Beyond this, you will also see bottle labels stating ‘St-Emilion Grand Cru’, which is an appellation.