Wine Ink: Bordeaux blends redux — A New World-Old World grape love affair
“We strive to produce wines that rival the best of the First Growths of Bordeaux.”
That line, or a variation of it, is probably the most ubiquitous declaration on winemaker websites about their goals. Look at websites from wineries around the globe that specialize in the production of cabernet sauvignon and/or merlot, and you’ll likely find some comparison of the Bordeaux blends they produce with those made in the motherland, in Bordeaux.
I guess if you are going to make an attempt to do something, you might as well aim to be among the best. And if you are going to either start from scratch or purchase a producing vineyard, it makes sense to go with grapes that generate the highest prices of all red wines. Of course, if you have the money to make wine on a grand scale, then you likely already have a relationship with the wines of Bordeaux, dare I say, a love affair. For all these reasons, nearly all of the New World’s great wine regions produce some form of Bordeaux blends.
To reiterate what I noted in last week’s WineInk, red Bordeaux blends are wines made by blending at least two of the five basic Bordeaux varietals in a single wine. These grapes are cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot and, in a few instances, carménère. There is no official designation of what a “blend” is — it’s at the maker’s discretion to use that term on the bottle.
In a blend, the grapes are picked, fermented and aged separately in barrels by varietal before they are blended together. Winemakers will blend the different varietals to taste in a glass, using measured beakers to keep track of the percentages of which grapes are used. When satisfied with the final product in the glass, the wines will be blended from barrels using the exact percentages that were determined in the tasting.
Each of the different varietals play their own role in the making of the blends. Cabernet sauvignon brings tannins, intensity and a backbone to the blend. Merlot’s role is to exude elegance and a bit more finesse and fruit. Cabernet franc generally plays a supporting role, bringing a bit of vegetal or herbaceous quality to the wine.
Remember, in Bordeaux, wines that lead with cabernet sauvignon are generally from the “Left Bank” and wines that are merlot dominate are from the “Right Bank” of the Gironde River. The “banks” not only describe the location of the wine’s origins, but, more universally, their style.
And these two wine styles have traveled the globe. If there is a wine region that is blessed with abundant sun and gravelly soils, it is inevitably planted to cabernet sauvignon. Merlot is a bit more finicky, but the majority of Bordeaux blends outside of Bordeaux feature both grapes.
In California’s Napa Valley, where cabernet sauvignon is king, there are a number of famed and highly priced wines that use some variation of the Bordeaux grapes in their quest to produce wines for status among the world’s best wines. Opus One was originally a joint venture between Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild in the 1980s, with a stated goal of producing a cabernet-led, Bordeaux-style wine that would reflect both the style of the Old World and the terroir of the New World.
On the other hand, around the same time just a few miles away, Dan Duckhorn was showing that merlot-based blends could be made on a world-class level. The 2014 Duckhorn Three Palms Vineyard Merlot, Wine Spectator’s wine of the year in 2017, was a blend of 86% Merlot, 8% cabernet sauvignon, 4% malbec and 2% petite verdot. It should be noted that, in the U.S., if a wine has a minimum of 75% of one grape varietal, it can use the name of that grape exclusively on the label.
And it’s not just America. You may be familiar with Sassicaia, the great Super Tuscan from the Italian Coast that is a blend of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. On New Zealand’s North Island, there is a region called Hawke’s Bay with a sub region called the “Gimblett Gravels,” a perfect New World location for the classic Bordeaux grapes. The 2016 Craggy Range “Te Kahu” Bordeaux Blend Gimblett Gravels Hawke’s Bay is a cracking example of old and new coming together. And in Argentina, the Catena Family makes wines led by malbec that rely on the more well known varietals for support.
In today’s wine world, the new and the old blend together. Just as the grapes do in the wines.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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