Saturday, March 26, 2011
Today we talked about Bordeaux and its three major grapes - cabernet sauvignon, merlot and sauvignon blanc. Unlike Burgundy, where you are only allowed to use one varietal, Bordeaux wines are nearly always going to be blends. I have often overheard people at tastings say they only like straight cabs or straight merlots. I cannot wait to tell them that over 90% of the wines we drink are blends. Our teacher today summed it up best - the only reason a winemaker would add another grape is to make the wine better.
Looking at a map of Bordeaux, you see two rivers coming together - the Dordogne and the Garonne. If you stand right before the convergence (the Gironde estuary), facing the U.S., you can now start referring to the left bank and the right bank. This is important because wines from the left bank are going to be predominantly cabernet; wines from the right bank are going to be predominantly merlot. The reason for this is (again) terroir - cabs like gravel and merlot likes sand and clay.
When blending, adding merlot to cabernet is going to soften it up and make it easier to drink. Adding cabernet to merlot is going to give it more color, tannin and acid. While adding acid doesn't sound like a good thing, it is cabernet's acidity that makes them age-worthy. With Sauvignon Blanc, it is the Semillon grape that is typically blended with it to make it better. Semillon helps to sustain the fruit character, adds complexity and gives the wine more body.
You would think that this knowledge alone would make the buying of French wines easier. It does not. I was nearly as lost this week in the wine store as I was last year. Because France's classification system is so strict and particular, you would have to memorize the entire list of the 1855 classification in order to know exactly what you are buying. Breaking it down into regions does help some and is a little easier for this 40-something to remember. Plus, regional wines are going to be more affordable anyway. Regions on the left bank are Medoc, Haut-Medoc, Pauillac, Margaux, Graves and Pesac-Leognan. Regions on the right bank are Saint-Emilion and Pomerol. Sauvignon Blancs are going to come from Pessac-Leognan and Graves.