If you've been to Bordeaux, you understand that it's split into two basic regions: the Left Bank and the Right Bank. Facing west from Bordeaux, the Left Bank is south of the Garonne and Gironde Rivers, and the Right Bank is north of the Dordogne and Gironde.
Although both regions can use the same grape varieties – cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit verdot, malbec, and cabernet franc – the Left Bank producers focus more on cabernet sauvignon, while the Right Bank producers focus more on merlot.
Napa Valley is divided by appellations, but there has never been an attempt to rank the wines according to quality, akin to the Left Bank's growth classification. It would be cataclysmic if anyone dared to try. However, some producers have fashioned wines after a Left or Right Bank profile. Some blends – called "meritage" -- are round and supple -- more like the merlots from the Right Bank. Others are tannic cabernet sauvignons meant to age.
Typically, Bordeaux reds are more restrained and balanced, while Napa Valley wines are richer, more opulent and oaky. However, in recent vintages, there is more common ground between the regions – Bordeaux producers have been making more rich and fruit-forward wines, and Napa Valley producers are pulling back from the hedonistic, jammy monsters of yore.
Categorizing California wines may be foolhardy because doing so is likely to be met with vehement disagreement. Identifying a wine as either Left or Right Bank is as much about the style of the wine as it about its grape composition. Just because a wine is mostly cabernet sauvignon doesn't mean it's a Left Bank style of wine.
NAPA'S LEFT BANK
Gamble Paramount 2013 ($90). From one of Napa's prestigious wine producers, this blend of cabernet sauvignon (33 percent), merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot brings home Bordeaux character and power. Huge, layered aromas range from black cherries to herbs. Rich and textured flavors reminiscent of wild blackberries and a hint of tobacco. This one is good for at least 10 years in the cellar.
Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 ($160). This immense cab uses grapes from its prized Calistoga estate vineyard. The producer marries complexity with balance in a nice package of generous raspberry aromas and rich red berry fruit with tantalizing hints of mocha and mineral.
Priest Ranch Coach Gun Napa Valley 2013 ($80). This Napa Valley producer makes incredibly concentrated wines high up the Vaca mountain range, but the Coach Gun is a standout. Concentrated, rich, textured, and softly layered in black cherry, black berry, and cassis fruit flavors. All five Bordeaux grape varieties are used to make this a full body wine.
Neyers "Left Bank" Red Blend 2014 ($30). An even split of cabernet sauvignon and merlot, we might argue this is more Right Bank. It has the classic American style of rich (almost sweet) cola flavors with generous and forward raspberry and cassis fruit. Good value.
Robert Sinskey Stag's Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 ($110). The label on this exquisite and complex wine is gorgeous, but it's not just a pretty face at stake. Inside the bottle is a dense, tannic monster with cassis and spicy aromas, followed by red berry and herbal flavors. Sinskey's RSV wine from warmer Carneros vineyards is styled more after Right Bank wines.
Grgich Hills Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($72). Cabernet sauvignon dominates this Napa Valley monster, but the rest is a combination of merlot, petit verdot, and cabernet franc – truly a Bordeaux blend. Layered dark berry aromas with a bit of wet saddle; dense flavors of black berries with firm tannins.
NAPA'S RIGHT BANK
Ramey Napa Valley Template 2014 ($85). With Mt. Veeder merlot being 70 percent of this blend, there is a round and smooth texture that begs for a second serving. But this is no simple merlot. The big dose of cabernet franc gives the wine good color and aromatics.
Duckhorn Stout Vineyard Merlot 2013 ($98). Using grapes grown on Howell Mountain, this sturdy merlot has excellent structure to rank with the great wines of the Right Bank. Wild, mountain-typical raspberry and cassis flavors with hints of cocoa, earth, and licorice. Big tannins give it promise for aging if you have the patience.
Webster Cellars Right Bank Red Blend 2013 ($75). This is a warm and soft blend of cabernet sauvignon (60 percent), merlot, petit verdot and cabernet franc. Floral aromas, opulent blackberry flavors and fine tannin.
Ehlers Estate Merlot 2013 ($55). Winemaker Kevin Morrisey learned his skill in Pomerol, so he knows a thing or two about merlot. Blended with a small amount of cabernet franc, this wine brings out the lusciousness one expects from merlot. Raspberry and currant flavors with hints of licorice and chocolate. Chewy tannins demand a hearty meal, like stew or game.
Swanson Vineyards Napa Valley Merlot 2013 ($32). We recently reunited with this classic merlot after a long, unintended hiatus, and we’re glad we did. It’s a voluptuous, concentrated wine that exceeds its price in quality. Blended with some cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot, this full-bodied wine has oodles of plum aromas and plum, blackberry flavors with a dash of cedar and herbs. When a producer makes merlot its centerpiece, this is the quality you get.