By Rob Moshein @AustinWineGuy
Le Wine Buff Rob on The Key to Bordeaux
“Bordeaux. What grape is that?” This is a question we get asked many times when we taste wine with consumers. Most wine drinkers in the US who favor California wines are driven by the single varietal. “I only drink Cabernet” or “I prefer Pinot Noir” is something we hear often as well. More people should “drink outside the box” to discover why the blended wines of Bordeaux provide a unique, distinctive and enjoyable wine experience. The French, with their history of wine going back centuries, long ago learned the secret that the place grapes are grown and the people who make it are much more important than the grape varietals used.
When California started making more “serious” wine in the early 1980s, most vineyards had planted only one variety of grapes. So, for example, Stag’s Leap made only Cabernet Sauvignon because that was all they grew. Consumers in the US quickly became accustomed to that style of just one varietal, and as demand grew there was no real incentive for wineries to consider blending on a large scale. Blending wines adds cost to the final bottle. Blending also is an art form unto itself, which takes years to perfect, and many California wine makers simply had little experience with it for the first years.
The obvious question is “Why blend?”
Blended wines are often more elegant, balanced and distinctive. Blending makes Bordeaux special. So special, in fact, that the California wine industry today now makes “Meritage”, blended, wines. Pronounced “Merit-idge” the name is derived from “The Merit of the Bordeaux Heritage”, and the wines are similar blends as in Bordeaux, from California wine.
There are, in fact, a variety of reasons why, at least in Bordeaux, it made sense over the centuries to blend wine and, as a result, produce such unique and distinct wines which are considered a cornerstone of quality.
One primary reason is the taste of the wine. Each varietal has its own distinct taste. Sauvignon Blanc is light, fruity and acidic. Sémillon has more body, an herbal, grassy flavor and shows minerality. Each, alone, is pleasant enough. Imagine having some friends over for a dinner party. One friend is shy, but very funny. Another is very smart and outgoing. Each is pleasant enough one on one. However, when you invite the two together, each brings something to the party and makes for a better time. The same applies in the wine glass. Take Chateau Bonnet Blanc for example. By blending some Semillon into the Sauvignon Blanc, the wine becomes more complex, rounder, more elegant and shows a pretty combination of both acidity and minerality.
Another equally important reason why Bordeaux blends wine is due to the “terroir” or environment of each unique region of Bordeaux. Some grape varietals grow better in certain conditions than others. So, for example, on the Right Bank, in St. Émilion, closest to the town of Saint Emilion is an area of deep limestone on fairly steep slopes. Merlot grows best in this environment, and Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon will also grow fairly well but not as well as the Merlot. Thus, St. Emilion wines are a blend of mostly Merlot and a little Cabernet. The Cabs add some body and structure to the supple and elegant but lighter Merlot. This is well expressed in the 80% Merlot 20% Cabernet Sauvignon blend of Les Parcelles de Stéphane Derenoncourt 2010. The wine shows a pretty cherry tone and supple elegant body from the Merlot, but has a nice acidity and dark tannin note from the Cabernet.
Cabernet Sauvignon grapes
On the Left Bank, in Haut-Médoc, they have a very different geography. They have a gravelly sandy soil, good for Cabernet Sauvignon, with pockets of muddy clay, which Merlot prefers. So, in one vineyard you will find Cab planted in some parts, with Merlot in others. Naturally, you will find a blend of the two from the same vineyard. This makes sense, because again, the heavier, more full bodied Cab will be balanced and made more elegant by the lighter and softer Merlot. The two combined make for a better wine than leaving each separate. A fine example is Château d’Arcins 2009 Haut-Medoc. A rich earthy black cherry fruit and solid tannin structure are softened and made more elegant by the lighter Merlot.
Take that step, explore the heritage of wine that is Bordeaux. Experience for yourself the supple, elegant, complex and ultimately richly rewarding expression created by the art and craft of blending different wines together, to achieve something in your glass that is far greater than the sum of its parts. Experience Bordeaux.