Lesson 4 – The Left Bank

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Sommelier School

Lesson 4

The Left Bank

Ah, the Left Bank. And I don’t mean Paris. When we speak of the Left Bank in wine, it’s the Left Bank of Bordeaux. Today we are going to go a little more in depth about the Left Bank part of Bordeaux. Next week it will be the Right Bank, and then the Entre-Duex-Mers after that. So what makes the Left Bank so special? Mostly the terroir. What is terroir? In the basic definition it’s the soil. But it’s really so much more. It also includes the micro-climate. That’s the climate for that specific vineyard. Temperature, elevation, slope, humidity, tendency to have fog, rainfall, hours of sunlight, etc. And finally, how the specific Château handles it’s vineyard. Do they use pesticides, are they organic, machine-picked, hand-picked, overall care of the vineyard, etc. All of these along with the characteristics of the soil contribute to the terroir. For a little more in-depth description of terroir please refer to here.

Let’s get more in depth about the terroir on the Left Bank. The gross description of Left Bank soil is that the soil is gravel. While this is true to some extent, it’s not the end all. Much of the soil is mixed with differing amounts of clay and limestone. Why is this important? Well, it helps to understand how well the soil holds water. The less water it holds, to more the vine is stressed. This is a good thing up to a point. When vines retain water, that’s bad, which any woman would agree in their personal lives. But why? The more water in the grapes, the more diluted they become. So you want a concentration of sugars to make the best wines. This also helps explain how one year can be a “good” year and another a “bad” year. If a vineyard gets too much rain, then the grapes have too much water. Rain isn’t the only factor with weather, but it’s a big one. Hail and frost also play a big part in the quality of a vintage.

Much of the northern Médoc has soil with more clay. As you go south it gets more gravely. However the first growths in the Médoc will have varying amounts of gravel, clay, and limestone. And this affects the wine. Farther south into Graves there are again varying amounts of gravel and limestone, plus sandy soil. And into the Sauternes area there are a lot of shallow limestone soils in Barsac, while Sauternes itself can have either gravel or clay.

So what does all that mean again? How much water is retained.

As I covered last week, the Left Bank is the area of Bordeaux that is on the west side of the Gironde Estuary and Garone River. The two main areas are Médoc and Graves. Pessac-Léognan is a part of Graves along with Sauternes and Barsac. In the Médoc there are several areas of importance to cover. Below is a map of the Left Bank via Wikipedia Creative Commons

First a refresher of the 1855 Classification. Last week we mentioned that 61 red wines were classified in 5 different growths or crus. They also classified the white wines of Sauternes into 3 growths or crus. Growth and cru are interchangeable so don’t worry about seeing both. Also, remember, that in 1973 the only change to happen in the red wine classification happened when Château Mouton-Rothschild was elevated from a Second Growth to a First Growth. I mentioned that there had been some other changes, but that has not happened.

OK, so let’s add some more to the mix. You may have seen the term Cru Bourgeois. So what is that? These are Châteaux of the Médoc that were not part of the original 1855 Classification. These Châteaux were classified in 1920. The amount of Châteaux within this classification varies over time. Starting in 2003 they further divided the classification into Crus Exceptionnels, Crus Superieurs, and Crus Bourgeois. They also began a policy of reviewing the Châteaux every ten years to determine what level they are at. But that was then. In 2007 the French Court essentially banned the use of these terms. Basically there was some bias concerning these classifications and the Court decided that these terms could not be used. Eventually the wine producers were able to get permission to re-establish Cru Bourgeois in 2009 as a standard though the other terms are not allowed. confusing, eh?

Onto the different parts of the Médoc. First there is the Northern Médoc. There are no Châteaux from the 1855 Classification in this part. However there are some that fall into the valid, then not valid, then valid again Cru Bourgeois. There are many fine wines here to be had as that classification would indicate. The wines here can show all the normal characteristics of a typical Bordeaux when young. However as they age, they become less structured. Wines here are generally best drunk around the 5 year or less mark.

Next down is the area known as St-Estéphe. This is where you will see the beginnings of Châteaux that are part of the 1855 Classification. Here there are a total of five. Two 2nd Growths, and one each of the 3rd-5th Growths. No 1st Growths here. The soils here are where the gravel becomes less of a factor and clay takes over. As a result more water is retained. Châteaux of note are:


  • Château Cos d’Estournel – 2nd Growth
  • Château Montrose – 2nd Growth
  • Château Calon-Ségur – 3rd Growth
  • Château Lafon-Rochet – 4th Growth
  • Château Cos Labory – 5th Growth


Pauillac. Home to 3 of the 5 1st Growths. And 18 1st-5th Growths overall. Only second to Margaux in total number of Growths. Here the soil has much more gravel and therefore causes more stress on the vines. Pauillac is considered by many to be THE place to visit first of all the communes in the Médoc. Here is a list of the Châteaux by Growth:

  • First Growths
    • Château Lafite-Rothschild
    • Château Latour
    • Château Mouton-Rothschild
  • Second Growths
    • Château Pichon-Longueville-Baron
    • Château Pichon-Longueville-Lalande
  • Fourth Growths
    • Château Duhart-Milon-Rothschild
  • Fifth Growths
    • Château Pontet-Canet
    • Château Batailley
    • Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste
    • Château Grand-Puy-Ducasse
    • Château Haut-Batailley
    • Château Lynch-Bages
    • Château Lynch-Moussas
    • Château d’Armailhac
    • Château Haut-Bages-Libéral
    • Château Pédesclaux
    • Château Clerc-Milon-Rothschild
    • Château Croizet Bages

Next is St-Julien. Here the ratio of classed-growths (1855 Classification) and non-classed growths is the highest of anywhere in the Médoc. While there are no 1st Growths here there are plenty of 2nd-4th Growths with a total of 11. And many consider this a kind of a transition area between the styles of Pauillac and Margaux. Here is the list of Châteaux by Growths:

  • Second Growths
    • Château Léoville-Las-Cases
    • Château Léoville-Poyferré
    • Château Léoville-Barton
    • Château Gruaud-Larose
    • Château Ducru-Beaucaillou
  • Third Growths
    • Château Lagrange
    • Château Langoa-Barton
  • Fourth Growths
    • Château St-Pierre
    • Château Branaire-Ducru
    • Château Talbot
    • Château Beychevelle

Farther south is the Central Médoc. The middle-ground between St-Julien and Margaux. While there are no Classified Growths here, there are a number of what have been termed in the past as Bourgeois Crus in the area. Wines from this area are simply referred to as Haut-Médoc. While the soil is gravely, the water table is higher than elsewhere meaning that the vines are not stressed as much.

On to Margaux. Home to just a single First Growth – Château Margaux of course. This area has the highest number of Classified Growths of the Médoc at 21. The soil here has the most gravel of all the other areas of the Médoc which will cause the most stress to the vines. Below are the Growths in this part of the Médoc:

  • First Growth
    • Château Margaux
  • Second Growths
    • Château Rausan-Ségla
    • Château Rausan Gassies
    • Château Durfort-Vivens
    • Château Lascombes
    • Château Brane-Cantenac
  • Third Growths
    • Château Giscours
    • Château Kirwan
    • Château d’Issan
    • Château Malescot-St-Exupéry
    • Château Cantenac-Brown
    • Château Palmer
    • Château Desmirail
    • Château Ferriére
    • Château d’Alesme
    • Château Boyd-Cantenac
  • Fourth Growths
    • Château Pouget
    • Château Prieuré-Lichine
    • Château Marquis de Terme
  • Fifth Growth
    • Château de Tertre

OK, so that’s just the Médoc in a nutshell so to speak. Next we are going to delve into Graves. The Graves is named after it’s soil – gravel. In addition to that the soil contains sand and pebbles. By the way, here is a little French lesson if you didn’t watch the video – it’s pronounced grawv, not graves like the cemetery. The Graves is divided into two main sections Pessac-Léognan and Sauternes/Barsac. These are not the only areas in Graves, but they are the most important and that is what we will be focusing on.

First we will cover the Classified Growths of Graves. First done in 1953 and then revised in 1959, these 16 Châteaux have the classification of Crus Classés de Graves. Of these 16 Châteaux, only one was included in the Classification of 1855 – Châteaux Haut-Brion. Below is the complete list of Châteaux along with whether they produce red, white, or both styles of wines:

  • Château Haut-Brion – Red
  • Château Bouscaut – Both
  • Château Carbonnieux – Both
  • Domaine de Chevalier – Both
  • Château Couhins – White
  • Château Couhins-Lurton – White
  • Château de Fieuzal – Red
  • Château Haut-Bailly – Red
  • Château La Mission Haut-Brion – Red
  • Château La Tour Haut-Brion – Red
  • Château Latour-Martillac – Both
  • Château Laville Haut-Brion – White
  • Château Malartic-Lagraviere – Both
  • Château Olivier – Both
  • Château Pape Clement – Red
  • Château Smith Haut Lafitte – Red

All of the above are in the region known as Pessac-Léognan. It was named this in 1987 as a specific appellation contrôlée. While it’s obvious from the list that whites are made in this area, reds are the dominant style of wine. However, those whites that are made here use mostly Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon. After that two other whites may be used – Muscadelle and Sauvignon Gris. Side note, don’t confuse Muscadelle with Muscat. While they may have similar bouquets, they are not related. The whites in this region are mainly dry, however some sweet whites are made.

Next we have Sauternes and Barsac. This is the sweet stuff. Wines from here are called dessert wines because of their seductively sweet bouquets and palates. The varietals here are Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle.

What makes these wines so sweet? Fungus. Huh? Yes, fungus. In this area of Bordeaux the growers allow a fungus to grow on the outside of the grapes known as “noble rot.” The scientific name is Botrytis cinerea. What happens is moist conditions at night in the vineyards cause this fungus to start growing. During the drier heat of the day the fungus multiplies and feeds on the water from the grapes. If it never gets dry and the grapes are constantly in a humid condition, this same fungus will ruin the crop. It’s a balancing act. As the Botrytis continues to grow, more water is extracted making the grapes similar to raisins. Below are a couple pictures of what this looks like:

Photographer: Tom Maack, Botrytis cinerea auf Riesling-Weinbeeren, Edelfäule / Botrytis cinerea on Riesling grapes, noble rot. Rheingau, Germany, October 2005

Public Domain Photograph via Wikipedia 

Ok, so why are Sauternes so expensive? To harvest these grapes requires multiple harvests by hand. They will even go grape-by-grape. It could take several harvests to get all the grapes. Now some of the Châteaux don’t have the resources to be this picky, and will try to find a middle-ground of when to harvest. Once the grapes are harvested, they go through the same fermentation process, however not all of the sugar becomes alcohol which is why they are so sweet. Even so, it’s still a very labor-intensive process. But the rewards are worth it for those that have tasted a Sauternes.

Sauternes also has the distinction of being a non-Médoc part of the 1855 Classification, but for white wines. Remember that Château Haut-Brion was in Graves in 1855 and included in the red version. For Sauternes there are three Growths. Below are the Growths:

  • First Great Growth – Grand Premier Cru
    • Château d’Yquem
  • First Growths – Premiers
    • Château La Tour Blanche
    • Château Haut-Peyraguey
    • Château Suduiraut
    • Château Château Climens (in Barsac)
    • Château Rieussec
    • Château Siglas-Rabaud
    • Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey
    • Château de Rayne-Vigneau
    • Château Coutet (in Barsac)
    • Château Guiraud
    • Château Rabaud-Promis
  • Second Growths – Deuxièmes Crus
    • Château Myrat (in Barsac)
    • Château Doisy-Védrines (in Barsac)
    • Château d’Arche
    • Château Broustet (in Barsac)
    • Château Caillou (in Barsac)
    • Château de Malle
    • Château Lamothe
    • Château Doisy-Daëne (in Barsac)
    • Château Doisy-Dubroca (in Barsasc)
    • Château Filhot
    • Château Nairac (in Barsac)
    • Château Suau (in Barsac)
    • Château Romer de Hayot
    • Château Lamothe-Guignard

You’ve memorized all these, right? Yeah, me too. However since this is Sommelier School, realize that at some point you will need to know all of these Châteaux.

OK, so is that it? Almost. In addition to all of these Growths of top wines, many of these Châteaux have what is called Second Labels or Second Wines (Second vin in French). The primary label is known as the Grand vin or first label/wine. The Second Labels were created in the 18th Century so that the Châteaux could still sell their wine themselves rather than either dump it or sell off the juice to other producers of cheap wine.

These are wines that are made by the same château, using the same vineyards, and same grapes. The difference is in the quality of these grapes or the juice that is produced. So there could be grapes in one vineyard that could be used in both labels if some of the grapes are just not up to snuff for the Grand vin. Or, after the fermentation process, the winemaker may have barrels that are not performing well enough to be part of the Grand vin so they will be used for the Second vin.

These second labels are a great way to experience the top producers without paying the astronomical prices they charge. It’s possible that some second labels can be as cheap as 10% of the first label. And normally the name of the château will be included in the second label, but not typically the word “château.” Below are the Second vin of just the First Growths. Remember that many of the other Growths and other classified château have second labels:

  • Second Labels of the Médoc 1855 First Growths
    • Château Latour = Les Forts de Latour
    • Château Margaux = Pavillion Rouge de Château Margaux
    • Château Mouton-Rothschild = Le Petit Mouton de Mouton Rothschild
    • Château Haut-Brion = Bahans Haut-Brion
    • Château Lafite-Rothschild = Carrudades de Lafite-Rothschild

Here is a more complete list of Second Wines from Wikipedia – Click here.

So that’s going to wrap things up for this week. I really hope this has been informative. I know it’s a lot to digest so definitely go over it a few times. I also HIGHLY recommend getting the following books:

  • The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson
  • Windows on the World Complete Wine Course by Kevin Zraly
  • The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia by Tom Stevenson

All of these books are available via the Library link at the top of the site. Purchasing these books through that part of the site helps me out as I get a portion of the sale 😉 However, no matter how you get the books, please get them as they are invaluable sources of information.

Thanks for stopping in,

Mark V. Fusco

Aspiring Sommelier in Training


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