Friday, May 5, 2023

Bordeaux Blend

Rarely is there a wine made today that does not involve some form of blending. Even single variety wines are often blends of grapes from more than one vineyard, or from different rows within a vineyard. 

It's a skill, learned by practice, harvest after harvest. And some say that bringing that skill to blending is an art; that the sum of the parts, skillfully performed, results in an artwork desired by collectors.  

Skill, art, or a combination of both, the resulting expression is no better displayed than by what today is called "The Bordeaux Blend." 

The Bordeaux Blend was first formulated in the chateaux of the Medoc and Graves. Medoc enologists understood that each of the five grapes brought something unique to a blend, making the wine better than it might be from a single variety.  


At the beginning of the modern age of California wine making, the thinking was a single variety and not a blend, varietal wines soon became the standard and blending was usually reserved for jug wines. Today, winemakers see the benefit in blending to make a more interesting wine.

The Bordeaux Blend

What is a Bordeaux blend?  A mix of Cabernet Sauvignon with one or more of the following grapes in order most often preferred today: Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec. The original blend consisted of all five varieties, but today the Bordeaux Blend is likely a mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, or some variation on that blend. 

Carmenere is the "sixth" red grape of Bordeaux, used rarely by chateaux.  The grape has had moderate success in Chile, where for a long time, growers wrongly identified Carmenere for Merlot. 

Over time, Merlot (today the most planted variety in Bordeaux) began losing ground to Cabernet Franc while Malbec and Petit Verdot went back and forth until Petit Verdot won favor with most chateaux.  Still, although percentages vary by chateau, a typical blend today in the Medoc is 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc, 20% Merlot.

Slight differences in the weather and soil composition established Cabernet Sauvignon as the main grape in Medoc and Graves red wines, while Merlot dominates across the river in St. Emilion and Pomerol, where a typical St. Emilion blend may be 70% Merlot and 30% Cabernet Franc. 

A close look at the five varieties and what each brings to a blend will provide an insight into why winemakers construct certain blends. 

Cabernet Sauvignon is a widely planted and admired variety that is showing up in more vineyards in the world every year.  "Cab," as it is often known is slow to ripen, a blessing in those places with temperate growing conditions, but a concern in cool climates where it my be under ripe. 

Cabernet Sauvignon brings to the blend, blackberry and black currant when young, and more earthy notes, with cedar and pencil shavings with age. Firm tannins and good acidity round out the positive aspects of Cabernet Sauvignon. Under ripe Cab tends toward a green herbaceousness. 

Cabernet Franc is the ideal companion to Cabernet Sauvignon, perhaps because DNA profiling has shown it to be a parent of Cabernet Sauvignon along with Sauvignon Blanc. It matures earlier and tolerates bad weather better than Cab. 

Cabernet Franc is less tannic, has a softer texture and smells and tastes like ripe raspberries.  Besides partnering with Cab Sauv in Bordeaux, Cab Franc is a major red grape in the Loire Valley and is growing more popular in California and Washington state.

Merlot, once dissed by a casual comment in a film causing a surprising dip in U.S. sales, is now experiencing rising popularity.  Merlot has always been favored over Cab in right bank vineyards and is liked elsewhere as a varietal and blending component as in the Bordeaux Blend. 

Merlot is all ripe plums and black cherry, with a smooth texture and soft fruity finish.  Merlot can seem lower in tannins than Cabernet Sauvignon, but it's just the plummy fruit masking the variety's firm tannin structure. These virtues make  Merlot a favorite varietal wine, especially with a wide range of foods. 

                                                     Wine Folly

Petit Verdot ripens later than Cabernet Sauvignon, thus getting the grape ripe has long been a problem in Bordeaux vineyards. With a warmer summer, like in northern California, New York's Long Island and South Africa, Petit Verdot is capable of spicy flavors and good structure.  Petit Verdot is making a modest comeback in Bordeaux.

Malbec -- This grape nearly disappeared from Bordeaux vineyards, but it found a second life in Argentina's Mendoza Valley. Ironically, because of its success in Mendoza, Malbec is experiencing a mini-renaissance in Bordeaux.  Malbec is the primary grape in the wines of Cahors, where it is known as Cot. 

Malbec is deeply colored and richly flavored with hints of ripe plums and floral notes, plus the occasional tobacco scent.

Together, these five grapes form a harmonious blend, of complexity, depth and length. Age forms a closer bond while not hiding the attributes of each variety. Oak helps this process along, softening the supporting tannins, allowing the fruit to develop and show through.

In addition to Bordeaux, look for variations of the Bordeaux Blend in New World wines from California, Washington state, Texas, New York state, Italy, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Mexico, to name just those places with wines most often seen in U.S. markets.  

Traditionally, at least in the United States, Cabernet-based wines, like those that make up the Bordeaux Blend, have been paired with red meat, such as roasts and grilled steaks. Most of these wines, however, go with lots of different dishes, like pasta with red sauce and vegetarian entrees, especially ones prepared with mushrooms. 

The choices are only limited by your imagination. 

Next blog: Napa Series: Mountains and Valleys

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