One Simple Rule of Bordeaux You Can Bank On

Posted February 23, 2015

Matt Sitomer


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On the surface, Bordeaux can be confusing.  You probably know that the wines are blends, and that vintages matter -- A LOT.  You might know that there are sub-regions, or “appellations” with names like St. Émilion and Paulliac.  And you may have heard of the “growth” classification system, which helps contribute to the massive difference in price (and demand) for the wines from certain Chateaux over others.

But what the heck is inside these bottles?  The five red grapes allowed in Bordeaux wines are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot.  And if you know what to look for, you can make a pretty educated guess about the type of blend you’re holding.

Here’s a hint:

That’s right, a river runs through it -- the Gironde River, to be precise. It divides Bordeaux’s regions into “Left Bank” and “Right Bank,” and that’s your rule of thumb. The Left Bank wines tend to be dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon. The Right Bank wines tend to be dominated by Merlot. In the simplest terms, climate and soil cause the different varietals to thrive on either side. Sometimes you’ll hear domestic wines described as “Right Bank style” which is to say it's dominated by Merlot and Cab Franc, or "Left Bank style" -- Cabernet-focused, and blended with Merlot, Cabernet Franc, or Petit Verdot. In the image below, you’ll see the left bank regions in pink and red, home to names that may be familiar like Margaux, St.-Estèphe, Paulliac, and St.-Julien. Meanwhile, the right bank regions like Pomerol, St. Émilion, and Fronsac are in purple.

While you won’t find the words “left bank” or “right bank” printed on a wine label, you will see the name of the region, like on this classic label of Chateau Leoville Las Cases, which proudly self-identifies as being from Saint-Julien. That’s on the left bank, so you can expect Cab, and in spades.

Learn those few names, and you’ll know what type of wine you’re looking at. Or simply remember that Left Bank = Cab and Right Bank = Merlot, and you’ll feel a little more confident when you ask the sommelier for a recommendation.

Of course, there’s far more to know about Bordeaux if you’re interested, but this is one straightforward rule you can bank on!


Matt Sitomer wore many hats at Wine Library before becoming a founding employee at VaynerMedia, a social-first digital agency. He recently spent 18 months acting as an emissary to the burgeoning tech community in Las Vegas, NV, and relocated to Southern California in 2014 to help open VaynerMedia's Los Angeles office. While the weather was nice in Vegas, the wine is far better in LA.

Product Label.

Quintessa Red

90 Decanter

Item: 71050

750 mL

Retail: $199.99

$129.97 per btl

Product Label.

Chateau Leoville Las Cases

96 Wine Enthusiast

Item: 79433

750 mL

Retail: $199.99

$149.99 per btl