Why is France’s Bordeaux region divided into a Left Bank and a Right Bank?
With all due respect to my friends in Bordeaux, they have a little bit of a superiority complex even in their own backyard. Not that they came up with the left/right divide on their own. We can thank Mother Nature for that. The lines are drawn along the banks of two rivers (the Garonne to the left and the Dordogne to the right) that wind their way through the region and into the larger Gironde estuary that leads to the sea. All that running water provides Bordeaux with a textbook Atlantic climate and terroir that produces some of the finest juice to ever see a bottle.
It’s a perfect storm of excellence that nourishes both grapes and egos. If France thinks it produces the best wines in the world, Bordeaux thinks it makes the best wines in France with the Left Bank considering its output the best in Bordeaux. The Left is the home of all those fancy châteaux and Cabernet Sauvignon, the king of the red grapes and the leader in the Left’s sublime blends. Back in 1855, Emperor Napoleon III (that other Napoleon’s nephew) asked the palates of the day to compile a list of the best wines from Bordeaux to show off at that year’s Exposition Universelle in Paris. All but one were from the Left Bank’s Médoc sub-region. With nearly no edits since its inception, that list continues to float over Bordeaux like a big balloon full of really hot air.
For the most part, Right Bank winemakers shrug off the hype around the 1855 classifications. While its historic sub-region of Saint-Émilion has created its own ranking system, many of its best wines remain unclassified. Way more laid-back and architecturally understated, its vineyards focus on Merlot-led blends, making them universally more appealing for early drinking than their cousins from the Left Bank. That doesn’t mean they all come cheap. Some of the most expensive wines on the planet come from Right Bank producers.
Though its foundation is a separation by geography, perpetuated by a “friendly” rivalry, you’ve got to admit that the premise behind the banks of Bordeaux is one heck of a marketing concept. In a region known for its complexity, even the most neophyte oenophile knows left from right.