Whether for WSET or Court of Master Sommeliers blind tasting examinations, American students of wine are required to learn classic grapes in regard to their typical colors, aromas and flavors, and structural levels (alcohol, acidity, etc.). Wines from the Left Bank and Right Bank in Bordeaux are no exception. Following are some suggestions for studying and blind tasting Left Bank and Right Banks wines. Thoughts from several Master Sommeliers on how to identify the wines in practice and exams are also included.
Wines from both the Left Bank and Right Bank are produced from Cabernet Sauvignon-family grapes. Fruit profiles will therefore be similar but with an important distinction in a blind tasting: Merlot-Cabernet Franc blends tend to offer more red fruit vs. black fruit-dominant Cabernet Sauvignon blends.
Madeline Triffon, MS, of Plum Markets in Detroit, MI, agrees saying, “the combination of blackberries and inorganic earth leads me to the Left Bank, while wines from the Right Bank are all about lifted aromatics including red berry fruit.”
Non-fruit savory elements should always be a major focus for blind tasting students, regardless of grape variety. When tasting Bordeaux, key in on how Cabernet Sauvignon-based blends tend to show greener, even vegetal, qualities, while Merlot blends have nuanced herbal notes. All are derived from pyrazines.
Thomas Burke, MS, of Château Margaux notes, “Merlot doesn’t often give you the same underripe green peppery quality that pyrazines bring to Cabernet Sauvignon.”
Wines from both geographic areas can show considerable, even profound earthiness. Left Bank wines are known for gravel and earth notes, while wines from Saint-Émilion, Pomerol, and satellites tend to display clay and limestone.
Virginia Philip, MS, of the Breakers Resort, notes that she “usually gets damp clay notes from Right Bank wines.”
Quality wines from either region will commonly display oak, with a high percentage of new oak used by top châteaux. What’s important is for blind tasters taking US wine exams is to be able to recognize oak markers (toast, spice, graphite, baking spices, and more) and to further be able to distinguish used from new oak.
Along with recognizing important non-fruit savory notes, assessing structural levels consistently is a key component to success in blind tasting exams.
Alcohol: Merlot tends to ripen earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon; thus, Right Bank wines can display a slightly elevated alcohol level vs. Left Bank wines. Thomas Burke, MS, agrees saying, “with a greater percentage of Merlot, Right Bank wines can have higher potential alcohol.”
Tannin: Cabernet Sauvignon blends from the Left Bank tend to have firmer tannins than Merlot blends from the Right Bank, but this distinction varies greatly depending on actual blend percentages. Madeline Triffon notes that “tannins of wines from the Right Bank overall feel softer on the palate.”
Texture: Having just noted differences in tannin, Right Bank wines tend to be softer in texture. Thomas Burke notes that “Right Bank wines can feel rounder, broader, and have more volume across the palate.”
In the end, a good deal of practice is required to be able to distinguish wines from the Left Bank and Right Bank in a blind tasting examination.
To learn more about Bordeaux’s unique terroir, watch the webinar:
100% Terroir with Jane Anson
This webinar is part of the How the Experts Tackle Bordeaux virtual learning series.
Note: Article written by Tim Gaiser, Master Sommelier