If you’ve made the decision to get serious about making some fine wine, chances are that your friends are looking to you for answers to some of their most pressing questions about wine. To provide some assistance in this regard, and to enhance your overall cocktail party savvy, let’s explore some common French viticulture, starting this month with Bordeaux.
Bordeaux is a city of about one million population located on the west coast of France exactly half way between the equator and the North Pole – that is, at 45º north latitude, the same latitude as Minneapolis. While its climate is greatly tempered by its proximity to the sea, it nonetheless is plagued by a short growing season and by severe vicissitudes in wind and weather. A winemaker I visited there told me that they see California-style brix “only one year in twenty.” Chaptalization (addition of sugar) is mandatory. Thus, Bordeaux wines leave the gate with muscular tannins, a good dose of acid and only a nod at the warm fruitiness we have come to expect in California.
That the raw cabernets of Bordeaux needed taming became apparent hundreds of years ago, when five main wines rose to the top and became what we now call the Blends of Bordeaux. These are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot. Though, in truth, one would be hard pressed to find many Bordeaux’s containing Malbec today. Bordeaux is also home to some white wines – Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc principally; and to the richly sweet Sauternes of Graves’. More than 80% of Bordeaux wines are reds.
There are 57 appellations, 13,000 growers and 10,000 wineries in Bordeaux. Together, they blanket the world with nearly 900 million bottles of wine annually.
Cabernet Sauvignon, structured and intense, forms the backbone of all red Bordeaux’s. Merlot, round and supple; is the flesh on Cabernet Sauvignon’s bones. Cabernet Franc, used in most Bordeaux’s, provides some violet and spice. Malbec, if used at all, contributes softness. Petit Verdot, used like Malbec in small quantities or not at all, helps with alcohol and structure.
Any two of these wines used in combination may be called a Bordeaux, though a typical blend in the west (near the city of Bordeaux) is 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Franc and others. In the east (near St. Emilion), the blend might be 70% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% others. Chateau Petrus uses a blend of 91% Merlot and 9% Cabernet Sauvignon. The British call Bordeaux’s “clarets.” In the U.S., we call them anything BUT Bordeaux’s, since the TTB requires that 75% of a wine’s fruit originate in the viticultural area represented on the label. “Meritage” (rhymes with “heritage”), is a registered term used by some California wineries to denote a wine made with California Bordeaux varietals.