Friday, December 11, 2020

French grapes head west

"Now wines are wonders; great wines are magical; and winemakers are mad. Like horse fanciers, they are always trying to improve the breed."  William Massee, American wine writer.


Discovering something about the grapes in your wine can be a mundane and disappointing experience, or it could be magical, as William Massee says. 

There likely is no magic involved, but I think it is noteworthy how interest in  Malbec has dropped off in Bordeaux, while finding new interest far from home in South America. 

On the other hand, Tannat, not exactly a well known grape, continues to maintain  strong interest in southwest France, but like Malbec, Tannat has found a second life in South America.

By now most wine consumers know that the traditional Bordeaux blend consists of five grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. And it is generally known that the blend was eventually narrowed down, more or less, to just Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

That leaves these questions: What happened in Bordeaux to Malbec and Petit Verdot; Why have fewer chateaux opted to go with just the three grapes; and why are new plantings of Malbec and Petit Verdot static there?  Historically, there are some chateau that never added Petit Verdot and Malbec.

Before we move on, here are a few words on the status of Petit Verdot. The grape did not disappear bur has lost favor in Bordeaux because it ripens later than Cabernet Sauvignon, a major late ripening variety, and thus is susceptible to frost.  Petit Verdot has seen moderate success in Spain, Italy, the Alentejo region of Portugal and Napa and Sonoma counties. 

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Healthy cluster of Malbec grapes

Malbec -- In 1956 there was a devastating frost in Bordeaux that wiped out vineyards across the region.  Malbec was especially hard hit due to its susceptibility to disease and rot.  When the threat of frost had past and replanting began, many chateaux replaced Malbec with Merlot, a heartier variety that is less problematic in the vineyard.

It was the beginning of the end for Malbec in Bordeaux, although the grape still has a strong presence in Cahors, where Malbec produces a dense wine with deep color, no doubt the reason the English referred to it as the "Black wine of Cahors."

Wine has been made in Cahors since the Middle Ages, where the grape is known as Cot.  Old timers believe that Cot is the true name of the grape rather than Malbec.  

Traditional Cahors is a full bodied, deeply colored red wine with a rustic edge that still has a faithful market. However, the trend is toward lighter wines today, with  the older concentrated style of Cahors still being made, notably by Ch. du Cedre,  Ch. Lagrezette, Georges Vigouroux and Cosse  et Maisonneuve.  

Malbec is widely grown throughout south west France, notably in Bergerac. In the mid Loire, Malbec is commonly blended with Cabernet Franc and Gamay, for a lighter wine with forward fruit flavors. 

Although Malbec has a well-traveled record in France, in 1852 the variety found a new home in Argentina, where conditions were more suited to the grape.  Curiously, the vine cuttings brought to Argentina were from Cahors not Bordeaux, although Argentine Malbec is smoother and not quite as robust as Cahors; more like Bordeaux in flavor but not texture.

Malbec is predominate in Mendoza, especially the southern Uco Valley region and Lujan de Cuyo and Las Compuertas in the north.  Argentina's second biggest wine growing region is San Juan, just north of Mendoza, on the border with Chile. While not as fashionable (yet) as Mendoza, San Juan Malbec is gaining on Syrah the region's best known red variety.

There is an Argentine Malbec priced for all budgets, from $15 to more than $50. Here are just a few of the many currently in the U.S. market: Siete Fincas Mendoza, Luca Uco Valley, Susanna Balbo Mendoza, Catena Lunlunta, Famili Zuccardi Mendoza, Finca Adalgsa Lujan de Cuyo. 

California Malbecs range in price from $16 to $120: Francis Ford Coppola Diamond California, Chappelet Napa Valley, Chateau St. Jean Reserve Sonoma County, Firestone Santa Ynez Valley, Concannon Reserve Livermore Valley.  

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Tannat grape cluster

Tannat -- Madiran, in south west France, is Gascony's best-known red wine. Made from Tannat, traditionally the wine is rustic, big and astringent, but there is an ongoing effort to make the wine more approachable. 

Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, two red varieties not known for softer tannins, are blended with Tannat. If that wasn't enough tannin, some producers add a little Fer (or Fer Servadou), another tannic red variety grown in Gaillac and Madiran.

Maceration and micro-oxidation are then used to soften Tannat's hard edges, with the wine finally aging for 20 months in small oak barrels.  All of this cellar work in the winery is an effort to bring Madiran into the international market where the demand is for softer, more approachable wines, ready to drink earlier.   

Micro-Oxidation, or commonly "micro-ox," is a complex technique that allows for the delivery of precise and controlled amounts of oxygen to the wine during wine making. Micro-ox also helps to control reduction during aging in the barrel and to moderate greenness in the wine from under ripe grapes. Reduction is the presence of off-elements in a wine near the end of fermentation or in closures sealed with a cork or a screw cap. For more on reduction and micro-oxiddation, Google the terms or consult a wine encyclopedia.

Tannat is probably Basque in origin. In the 19th century, Basque settlers from Spain, took Tannat vine cuttings with them to Uruguay where it is the most important grape for fine wine. 

The Uruguayan government initiated a program in the 1980s to improve the wine industry, which at that time was making wines from hybrids and North American grapes, mainly for local consumption. The nascent fine wine industry moved quickly and smoothly to European varieties and improved wine making.

But wine export in Uruguay has moved slowly, mostly to Brazil. The Uruguayan wine industry is looking at other export markets, promoting fine wines like those made from Tannat, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc. Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are the main whites. 

Prices and selection of Uruguay Tannat are limited, with a price range of $13 to $36.  Look for these Tannats: Noble Alianza Tannat-Merlot, Bodega Garzon, Bouza Reserve, Pizzano Family Estates and Deicas.

Malbec and Tannat are presented here as alternatives to other more popular red wines. There are many valid reasons why Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are popular, but I encourage readers to try different wines.  Who knows, you may find a new favorite!


Next Blog: "My Life in Wine" Episode 9

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