Thursday, August 8, 2019

Bordeaux Options

Single variety wines or blends, which one is best?  The question has troubled wine drinkers for years and while most people would agree that it's a matter of personal taste, there is one historic example that may help an undecided wine drinker to come down on one side or the other. 

California winemakers started building a reputation for red wine with 100% varietal wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon. About 35 years ago (can you believe it!) a shift toward blends began to build steam, and in 1981, the Meritage Association (now Alliance) was formed to distinguish those red blends made from two or more of the Bordeaux grapes from other red blends. There is also a white Meritage.

For more than one hundred years, winemakers in Bordeaux have relied on a blend of up to five grapes to produce a red wine that has become a benchmark around the world. French winemaking is regulated by the Appellation d'Origine Controlee, known commonly as AOC.  One stipulation for Bordeaux AOC is that wines are not identified by a single variety, but as a blend of at least two of the five authorized red grapes. 

The five grapes, in order of planted acreage are: Merlot (the most planted), Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot. and Malbec. Carmenere, an historic red grape in Bordeaux, is also an accepted red grape, but it is a minor player today.

The decision to  plant which grapes where was based mainly on the terroir and geography of each of the major wine districts. Hugging the left bank of the Gironne esturary is the Medoc, the largest of the major districts  and arguably the most important. Within the Medoc are such noted sub-appellations as St.-Estephe, Pauillac, Saint-Julien and Margaux. South of the Medoc and the city of Bordeaux are Pessac-Leognan and Graves.
Terroir is the French term for all of the natural factors, such as soil and topography, that influence a vineyard site.

On the right bank, closer to the Dordogne, are St. Emilion (and its sub appellations such as 

St. Georges-Saint Emilion), Pomerol and Lalande-de-Pomerol. Tempering the sometimes harsh climate of Bordeaux are the Atlantic, the Gironne estuary, the Garonne river that feeds into the Gironne and to the northeast, the Dordogne river. 

Not all five red grapes are planted in all parts of Bordeaux. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the major red grapes along with a little Petit Verdot, in  the Medoc and Graves.  There is virtually no Malbec left in the Medoc. Merlot and Cabernet Franc predominate in the cooler right bank soils of St. Emilion and Pomerol.  

Over the years Bordeaux winemakers have observed the importance of terroir while showing a personal preference for one grape over the other as factors dictating the blend.  First Growth Pauillac chateau blends are primarily Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, in that order. Chateau Mouton Rothschild has the highest amount of Cabernet Sauvignon at 80%,and 16% Merlot. Chateau Latour's blend contains 75% Cebernet Sauvignon and 24% Merlot,  Further south in the Graves district, Chateau Haut-Brion opts for a nearly equal amount of Cabernet Sauvignon (40%) and Merlot (49%). Haut Brion also has the highest amount of Cabernet Franc, 11%.

(Tasting Chateau Latour. I have long admired the elegance and complexity of Ch. Latour, so I jumped at the chance to attend "La Fete du Chateau Latour," an impressive two-day tasting of 89 vintages of Latour, from 1861 to 1979, in 1981 at the Four Seasons Clift Hotel in San Francisco. The marathon tasting was led by Michael Broadbent, M.W., then of Christies Auction House in London.

To say that this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, is an understatement, for which I was not sure I was up to...but I was anxious to give it a try.

There were two tastings on day one, the first at the civilized hour of 11 am, and the second at 6 pm. The morning tasting consisted of 30 wines, from 1950 to 1979, with standouts (for me): 1955,1961 (a storied 20-year-old Pauillac with depth and richness), 1964, 1966, 1970, 1975 and 1979. 

That evening, another 30 wines were poured, from older vintages 1918 to 1949. I especially liked 1920, 1926 (full fruit, complex), 1928 (sweet fruit), 1934 and 1936 (both nicely knit wines with delicate flavors and great length), Wines from the war years suffered, but Latour bounced back with very impressive wines in 1946 and 1948. 

On the second day, we re-assembled to taste 29 older wines, from 1861 to 1917.  With few exceptions, the wines from 1861 to 1899, were in good but not great shape, with 1865 and 1870 noteworthy for their exceptional balance and firm delicate flavors. 

Perhaps it's a stretch to say that a wine more than 100 years old still shows vitality and length, but it did!  This is a testament to the longevity of Cabernet Sauvignon, the talent of the winemaker and the positive merits of a blended wine.  But it is also a plea not to drink your wines too young.

What impressed me, besides the wines, was Latour's consistency of style, year after year, especially when you consider how many maitre de chais (cellarmaster) were trusted with that style. And, even considering a tweaking of the blend to account for vintage differences, the power of Cabernet Sauvignon came through, supported by Merlot's softening fruit.)

What's the take away?  That can best be answered by looking at what each of the five Bordeaux grapes contribute to a blend.

Cabernet Sauvignon: Black berry, black cherry, tobacco, dried herbs, mint, sometimes  eucalyptus, firm tannins and structure. Unripe cabernet an be green, like green bell pepper.
Merlot: Black fruits like plums, black cherry, black berry, sweet spices like cloves, the impression of softer tannins.  Under ripe Merlot often shows hints of dill.
Cabernet Franc: Perfumed sweet fruits like raspberries, softer tannins than Cabernet Sauvignon. 
Petit Verdot: Floral notes like violets, sweet spices, medium tannins, crisp acidity.
Malbec: Ripe rich fruit flavors, plums, floral notes, full tannins, good structure and length.

With blends, the sum is more pleasureable than the individual components, but if the characteristics of one of the five Bordeaux grapes strikes your fancy, then go with the single variety wine.
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