I’ve decided, as a studying project over the next couple months, that I would learn more about Californian wines.
I’d like to focus on reds made from the grape varieties used in the Bordeaux region. Contrarily to Burgundies, Bordeaux wines tend to be a blend of various varieties in varying proportions. There are three main varieties used: Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. They each have distinct characteristics and producers blend them depending on the result they want to achieve by emphasizing certain traits or dampening other ones. Here are a few key points for each grape (broad strokes).
Cabernet-Sauvignon : the Structure
Cabernet Sauvignon is a relatively new grape, a cross of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon. It is pretty hardy, produces low-yields and ripens late. Common flavors are blackcurrant, blackberry, green bell pepper or even cedar and tobacco. In a blend, Cabernet-Sauvignon contributes high acidity and tannins, a key element to give structure to a wine and give it good aging potential. It also has a strong affinity with oak, which of course doesn’t hurt in terms of aging.
Merlot : the Body
Merlot is one of the most widely planted grapes in the world, and, the most planted grape in France. It tends to produce full-bodied, smooth and velvety wines with black and red fruits aromas : blackberry, plum, cherry, blackcurrant,… It ripens earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon and can overripe quicly after that. In a blend, Merlot provides softness and body, mellowing the tannins and acidity of Cabernet-Sauvignon
Cabernet-Franc : the Fruit
Cabernet-Franc is used to make varietal wines in the Loire valley, notably near the town of Chinon, but it is also one of the varieties used in the Bordeaux blends. Like Merlot it ripens earlier than Cabernet-Sauvignon (the reason it can grow in a cooler climate like the Loire Valley). Common aromas would be raspberry, blackcurrant and violets. In a blend, Cabernet-Franc contributes fruit flavors and finesse. It doesn’t have the staying power of the other two grapes but it can add some flavor to the mix.
There are other varietals used in Bordeaux, mostly Malbec (color) and Petit Verdot (tannins and colors), but these are the main three. Depending on where you are in Bordeaux, wines will have more of one varietal and less of the others. Some wines are Cabernet-Sauvignon dominated (mainly on the Left Bank), some are Merlot dominated (Pomerol and St-Emilion) and there even are Cabernet-Franc dominated wines (Cheval Blanc, Ausone)
Now that the basics, and to be honest, these are the very, very basics, are explained, it’s time to start drinking!