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Bordeaux’s Secret Recipes – The Red Blends

Bordeaux wines are always blended and this is done to achieve the perfect combination of textures and flavours in their famous wines. It’s the secret of Bordeaux’s success . . .

Blending  is like alchemy - it turns grapes into something extraordinary
Blending is like alchemy – it turns grapes into something extraordinary

Unlike most New World wines Bordeaux wines are blends of different grapes carefully assembled to create a flawless wine. Just like the ancient alchemist’s dream of turning base metal into gold, there is a kind of magic when a meticulously designed blend reveals a great wine.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts

Blending is known as ‘Assemblage’ in Bordeaux and wine makers here have had centuries of practice in putting together combinations of grapes for maximum effect. Each chateau has developed its own style, technique and formula to produce their signature wine. Every grape variety has its own flavour profile and characteristics that will bring specific qualities to the blend. So wine makers make their choices wisely, knowing the blend will be the blueprint for the finished wine.

Together we become one
Together we become one

From a medley of grapes a single elixir is born

Each vintage is different, having its own personality, as the blend changes with each year depending on the growing conditions for the grapes. In this way skilfull Bordealise wine makers can overcome drought and deluge by selecting a higher percentage for the blend of the grape varieties that are resistant to these conditions. It’s a complicated process; the different grapes must complement each other, the chateau’s style must be kept consistent and the blend must be representative of the region. As the blend is the birth of a wine the wine maker needs to be able to predict its evolution as it develops and matures in barrel. Unlike the alchemist there is no crystal ball gazing involved; the wine maker has to rely on experience and exceptional expertise.

United in harmony

A marriage made in heaven

For a blend to be successful the grapes have to be in harmony with each other and marry well. Bordeaux red blends can only be made from 6 permitted grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carmenere. The principal players are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. However Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carmenere are also used in much smaller quantities.

The birth of a wine
The birth of a wine

Each of these grape varieties has its own different requirements in order to grow well. Some flourish best on the Left Bank in the Medoc (AOCs Pauillac, Margaux, Saint Julien, Saint Estephe, Listrac and Moulis) whilst others are better suited to the Right Bank (AOCs Saint Emilion, Pomerol, Fronsac) or in Graves. This means that Bordeaux blends reflect the dominant grape varieties of the region in which they are created in and that wine lovers can choose between their favourite styles depending on their preference for Merlot or Cabernet.

Tip: The same grapes that are used in Bordeaux red blends are also used in Bordeaux Roses and Clairets.

Red Blend Guide

Cabernet Sauvignon has a strong blackcurrant flavour
Cabernet Sauvignon has a strong blackcurrant flavour

Cabernet Sauvignon

In most cases Cabernet Sauvignon is the classic backbone of the blend; being found in practically all of Bordeaux’s red blends. It adds structure, power, high tannins and full flavours. It also gives the wine wonderful aging ability. Cabernet Sauvignon’s affinity for oak means that during barrel aging the finished blend gains the complimentary flavours of vanilla or caramel.

Originating in Bordeaux at some point in the 17th century, Cabernet Sauvignon was introduced to the Medoc as it’s primary grape by the viticultural pioneers Baron de Brane (the then owner of First Growth Chateau Mouton) together with Armand d’Armailhacq (of Chateau d’Armailhac, both now in the hands of the Rothschilds). The grape is the offspring of red Cabernet Franc and white Sauvignon Blanc. From its beginnings in Bordeaux Cabernet Sauvignon’s popularity has grown to make it the most famous grape in the world today.

  • Characteristics – distinctive strong blackcurrant flavour and fragrance; as well as black pepper, plum, mint, blackberry, liquorice and vanilla.

  • AOCs – Cabernet Sauvignon flourishes in the well drained gravels of the Medoc and Graves as well as the Entre Deux Mers but it is grown the length and breadth of Bordeaux. Apart from its homeland in the Medoc, where it can make up as much as 75% of the blend, it’s planted on the Right Bank and makes up a smaller percentage of the blends.

Merlot has a fruity blackberry flavour
Merlot has a fruity blackberry flavour

Merlot

Adds softness, lush texture, fruitiness and richness to the blend. It also gives a higher alcohol content.

One of the primary grapes used in red Bordeaux blends, Merlot is the most planted grape across Bordeaux. Despite the high amount of Merlot in the vineyards it is the second most used grape in the red blends with Cabernet Sauvignon coming top. Percentages of Merlot used can vary in the blends, from as little as 10% to as much as 90%! Merlot’s thought to have originated in Bordeaux and its parents are Cabernet Franc and the newly rediscovered Magdeleine Noire des Charentes. The earliest recorded mention of it dates to a Right Bank wine labelled ‘Merlau’ in 1784. Plantings in the Left Bank were introduced during the mid 1850s by Armand d’Armailhacq.

  • Characteristics – flavours and fragrance of blackberry, plum, black cherry, dark chocolate, anise, blueberry and cedar.

  • AOCs – Merlot is king in Pomerol where it accounts for up to 80% of the blend. One of the most famous Pomerol wines in the world, Chateau Petrus, is almost all Merlot. Saint Emilion wines also have high amounts of Merlot in their blends, using up to 60%. Chateau Bellevue has the highest amount of Merlot here with 98% of its vineyard planted to Merlot. Fronsac has also replaced Malbec with Merlot as its primary grape. Medoc AOCs on the Right Bank and Graves use less Merlot, with Saint Estephe having the highest plantings.

Cabernet Franc has raspberry and pepper flavours
Cabernet Franc has raspberry and pepper flavours

Cabernet Franc

Adds structure, silkiness, fragrance and complexity to the blend. It also gives the wine great ageing ability.

Cabernet Franc is an ancient grape which takes on major importance in Saint Emilion in Bordeaux. Being such an ancient grape its forebears are lost in the mists of time. Cabernet Franc is the parent of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Caremenere. It’s origins are mysterious as the grape is so old and there are romantic notions that it could be the much sought after grape ‘Bidure’ mentioned by Pliny the Elder and Columella in Roman times. Some claim that it is native to Bordeaux itself but studies reveal that it probably originated in the Basque country. Either way by the 1700s Cabernet Franc was growing in Saint Emilion, Fronsac and Pomerol.

  • Characteristics – flavours and fragrance of pepper and dark spices, raspberry, herbs and cut grass, cherry and tobacco.

  • AOCs – Cabernet Franc is grown across Bordeaux but the Right Bank AOCs of Saint Emilion, Pomerol and Fronsac are still its heartland as the grape flourishes best there. Saint Emilion is the most renowned for blends with the highest percentage of Cabernet Franc; notably First Growth Chateaux Cheval Blanc vineyards are planted with 58% of the grape and Ausone and Angelus are a 50/50 split between Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

Petit Verdot has the aroma of violets
Petit Verdot has the aroma of violets

Petit Verdot

Adds dark colour, body, tannic power and intense fruit to the blend.

Due to Petit Verdot’s rarity (thanks to its late ripening in Bordeaux), powerful flavours and high tannins, only percentages of 5-6% or less are used in blending. Thought to be native to the Medoc in Bordeaux, Petit Verdot can be dated as being grown there in 1736 but recent thinking places its origins further south towards the Pyrenees. Once widely grown in what is now Pessac Leognan; Petit Verdot is the reserve of only certain chateaux nowadays although replanting is being revived across Bordeaux due, in part, to warmer weather conditions.

  • Characteristics – deep flavours and fragrance of violets, blueberry, mocha, aniseed, olives, mulberry, leather and smoke.

  • AOCs – Petit Verdot is still grown in the Medoc, notably at Chateau Palmer (Margaux), Pichon Lalande (Pauillac), Leoville Poyferre (Saint Julien) and La Lagune (Haut Medoc). It’s also grown across Bordeaux, with concentrations in Graves, Entre Deux Mers and the Cotes.

Malbec has a distinctive black plum flavour
Malbec has a distinctive black plum flavour

Malbec

Adds dark rich colour, firm tannins, acidity and complexity to the blend.

In the 1850s documents show that Malbec was probably the most planted grape in Bordeaux with around 60% of the vineyards growing this grape. Clarets back then would have contained a large quantity in their blends; for example First Growth Chateau Lafite’s vineyards were dominated by Malbec at this time. Being a grape that likes sun and heat Malbec was practically wiped out in Bordeaux after the severe winter of 1956. Small amounts survived and Malbec has been making a quiet comeback thanks to the spice and colour it gives to blends. Today usage varies with some estates using 5-10% of Malbec in their blends. However some use a lot more (up to 45%!).

  • Characteristics – distinctive strong plum flavour and fragrance; as well as elderberry, damson, spice, black pepper, coffee and tobacco.

  • AOCs – Today the highest proportion of Malbec is in the Cotes de Bourg. It can also be found in the Cotes de Blaye and the Entre Deux Mers. However certain chateaux do have a small amount of Malbec in their vineyards, notably: Chateaux Haut Bailly (Pessac Leognan), Gruaud Larose (Saint Julien) and L’Enclos (Pomerol). In Saint Emilion, where Malbec was once widely grown, First Growth Chateau Cheval Blanc uses a tiny amount in its blend. In recent years, Malbec has been making a quiet comeback thanks to the spice and colour it gives to blends.

Carmenere has the flavour of rich black cherry
Carmenere has the flavour of rich black cherry

Carmenere

Adds dark colour, roundness, richness , fruitiness and body to the blend.

Carmenere is exceptionally rare in France as it was thought to have been wiped out in the Phylloxera plague in 1867. However little pockets of this long lost grape survive in Bordeaux. More recently it was ‘rediscovered’ in Chile during the 1990s where growers had been cultivating it mistakenly thinking it was Merlot. Being so rare, Carmenere is hardly found in Bordeaux blends though some estates are now replanting it.

  • Characteristics – Carmenere has been described as being somewhere between Merlot and the Cabernets as it displays virtues that both have. Flavours and fragrance of black cherry, dark chocolate, raspberry, redcurrant, pepper, cigar box and liquorice.

  • AOCs – Carmenere was once widely grown in Graves and today small pockets of it can be found in old vineyards. It is also being replanted by estates across Bordeaux. Carmenere can be found still in Graves and the Entre Deux Mers and notably in Pessac Leognan (Chateau Haut Bailly), Pauillac (Chateaux Clerc Milon and Mouton Rothschild), Margaux (Chateau Brane Cantenac replanted the grape in 2007) and Saint Emilion (Chateau Valandraud).

Many Bordeaux enthusiasts have a preference for one blend over another, I’d be interested to know what styles you enjoy!

Cheers!


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