Winefriend by David Way

Writing about the wines of Piemonte, Italy and France

Bordeaux grapes in search of sunshine

What happens when you start with a classic Bordeaux red wine, deconstruct its component grape varieties via new world examples and then put them all back together again?  That was the idea which underlay November’s Fine Wine Supper.  Take a fine Claret and use it as a benchmark, taste wine made mainly from single varietals around the world and finish with some new style Bordeaux blends.   This made for a great evening’s tasting not least because of the rather elaborate lead-in. 

Slovakian sparklerOur aperitif was generously provided, indeed personally imported by, one of our tasters.  Mrva & Stanko, Grand Cuvée, Methode Traditionelle, Slovakia, 13.5% comes in a handsome conical bottle and is made from 50% Pinot Noir, 35% Chardonnay and 15% Riesling. An attractive pale gold with the slightest pink tinge presumably pointed to some time in oak and perhaps a bit of colour seepage from the Pinot. A medium intensity nose, enticing yeastiness on the nose (18 months on fine lees), good apple and citrus fruit, mouth filling and decent clean finish.  A very creditable effort. 

The starter proper was provided by a comparison between a white Bordeaux and an Australian blend. In the move in the popular market to varietal wines white Bordeaux, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, has virtually sunk without a trace. It comes in either simple, unoaked versions (crisp, refreshing, some fragrance) or oaked and ageable ones.  Either way it can be a great food wine or it can be dull.  Château La Perriere, AC Bordeaux, 2010, 11.5% is unoaked with a majority of Sauvignon Blanc backed up with Sémillon.  It is definitely in the crisp camp, with lemon and sherbet notes and a decent level of fruit. At just £6.25 a bottle it shows what a bargain can be had because white Bordeaux is so unfashionable.  By contrast. Western Australia’s Margaret River area is both an area which has concentrated on fine wine production and is in vogue.  From one of the founder vineyards of the area, Cullen, Mangan Vineyard, Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc, Margaret River, 2009, 11.5%,  packs a punch in terms of flavour intensity, if not alcohol.   Brilliant lemon citrus fruit, vanilla and spiciness on nose and palate and backed up with real concentration and length on the palate.  The proportions of the varieties are reversed, with now more Semillon which will no doubt increasing the ageing potential of this wine.  25% of the wine was fermented and aged for four  months in new French barriques for a more rounded and complex mouth feel. A superb example, if much more expensive at £16. White Bordeaux blends are not limited to the banks of the Gironde. 

The reference wine for the reds was Château Beaumont, AC Haut-Médoc, Cru Bourgeois, Bordeaux from the 2005 vintage.    This was an interesting comparison as it is not a stellar wine in terms of its classification but – in a great year with full ripeness – it showed what Bordeaux at its best can do: medium in weight but outstanding in complexity and subtlety.  The most attractive feature was the deliciously perfumed nose – violets, cedar, mostly red-berried fruit.  But it does have to be emphasized what a good year this was – the Chateau recorded the highest ever sugar levels in the Cabernet Sauvignon (53% of the blend), very good levels in the Merlot (40%, plus 4% Cabernet Franc and 3% Petit Verdot) and a low yield of 40 hl/ha.  I paid under £7 for this in bond and it now costs £20-25. 

Bordeaux and its progeny

The first ‘component’ wine was a bit disappointing. Cabernet Franc, Buitenverwachting, Constantia, South Africa, 2008, 14.5% did have the classic herbaceousness, ‘dusty books’ aroma and a hint of chocolate but somehow it didn’t hang together and was a bit green.   Much more obviously attractive was our Carmenène, which while not featuring in the Ch. Beaumont is a genuine if minor blending variety which has made good in Chile – once the incorrect identification as Merlot was sorted out.  Deep ruby in colour, dense, opulent, fruit (black cherries and plums), good concentration and a long finish.  It was a bit one-dimensional but if you like fruit in your wine, you will love this: De Martino, Alto de Piedras, Carmenere, DO Isla de Maipo, Chile, 2009, 14%

Perhaps the star wine of the evening, at least outside of Bordeaux, was also the cheapest red – how satisfactory is that! Malbec has been perhaps been the most successful traveller of all  these varieties, turning itself from a minor blender in Bordeaux and a local celebrity in Cahors into a grape which has defined the whole image of both bulk and quality wine in Argentina. Where would UK supermarkets be without the reliably deep-coloured, fruity, easy drinking Argentinian Malbec?   Our example was The Wine Society’s Exhibition Mendoza Malbec 2009 14% made by Catena Zapata. Great care has gone into this, with the Malbec (90%) being sourced from three different areas to build up complexity and then fleshed out with 5% each of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.  Less opulent, but beautifully layered fruit and counter-balancing acidity, with a poise to match the Haut-Médoc above, a drinkable weight, and a touch of chocolate but not overdone – and all this available now at under £10 a bottle!  The last single variety was Merlot, Frog’s Leap, Rutherford, Napa Valley, 2009, 13.2%.   Delicious strawberry, red plum and blackcurrant fruit but simple and a very expensive quaffer in this company at £22. 

Our first itinerant Bordeaux blend was from the coolest site in this line up, considerably cooler than Bordeaux itself and this clearly showed in the wine.  Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, is a full 1.5 degrees cooler on average in the warmest month of the year than Bordeaux.  Merlots / Cabernets (in fact 46% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Franc, 18% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Petit Verdot) Woodthorpe Vineyard, Te Mata Estate, Hawkes Bay, 2009, 13.5%, leads with fine, bright red fruit and youthful, zippy acidity.   An excellent effort in a distinctive style.  Surprisingly nearly as cool is Langhorne Creek near Adelaide with a cool breeze from the sea and from nearby Lake Alexandrina, but the outcome is very different. Frank Potts, Bleasdale, Langhorne Creek, Australia, 2008, 14% had pronounced blackcurrant leaf and fruit on the nose and palate but was a bit thin on the mid-palate.  It is an unusual blend of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 21% Malbec, 7% Petit Verdot with the remaining 5% being split between Cabernet Franc and Merlot. It would be good to try a more typical Bordeaux blend from here as if tasted as though it could do with some more Merlot.

TastingThe final wine, another bonus from one of our tasters, was a fully mature new world blend, ‘The Max’, Stony Brooks Vineyards, Franschhoeck, South Africa, 2005, 14.5%, neatly paralleling the age of the claret.  Full of black fruit, rich and concentrated this showed some quite advanced tertiary, farmyard, notes and powerful, quite grippy tannins. 

This was a really good tasting generating many insights about varieties, places, wine making styles and blending. And the popular vote?  Catena Zapata’s Malbec for the Wine Society, followed by Ch. Beaumont.  Next month we will do the same but with Rhône varieties …

Footnote on temperatures:  I used the average temperatures in the hottest month of the year data for this tasting, as given in Johnson and Robinson’s World Atlas of Wine, 2007 edition.  This is good start but I gather Andrew Pirie from cool climate Tasmania is developing a more sophisticated model which starts by averaging the temperatures in each of seven growing months to produce a Growing Season Temperature Index. This could then be flexed for rain days, growing season solar radiation, soil moisture content and the mean temperature of the coolest month (so Sally Easton MW on her excellent Wine Wisdom web site). That would be a really helpful tool and neatly illustrates that it is never one single factor which affects outcomes.  

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