All Change in Bordeaux

Ch MargauxWhisper it quietly but, in Bordeaux, that most traditional of winemaking areas, change is about to happen. For generations, the rules for the region’s red wines have insisted that only 6 grape varieties are allowed in the blend: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc are the best-known plus Petit Verdot, Malbec (yes – the grape that Argentina claims as its own) and, if you can find any, Carmenère.   If you want to make your wine from anything else – Pinot Noir or Syrah, for example – that’s fine, but you can’t call it Bordeaux, it’s simply Table Wine (or Vin de France as it’s now known).

But last month, in a surprising turn around, the Bordeaux growers voted to allow 4 additional varieties: Touriga Nacional, a major component in Port and many other Portuguese wines, Marselan, a Cabernet Sauvignon/Grenache cross found in some southern French reds, Arinarnoa, another Cabernet Sauvignon cross, this time with Tannat (the Madiran variety) and finally, Castets, an old local variety that is virtually extinct.

Looking at the first 3 newcomers, the reason for the change quickly becomes obvious: all are from warmer areas and so are rather more heat- and drought-tolerant than the traditional varieties – qualities that have come massively to the fore in recent weeks where record temperatures have been seen across Europe.

Bordeaux’s whites are to get a makeover, too, with Portugal’s Alvarinho (grown in Spain as Albariño), south-west France’s lovely Petit Manseng and the obscure Liliorila, a Chardonnay cross, all being admitted, subject (as are the new red varieties) to the approval of France’s regulatory body, the INAO. If this is granted, official planting will be allowed from late next year, so, allowing 3 years for the vines to begin producing, the wines, under the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur Appellations only (commune level wines, and Classified Growths such as Chateau Margaux, pictured above, remain unchanged) should start appearing on our shelves around 2024.

I look forward to tasting them.

Advertisements

The Bordeaux-Chile Link

Los Vascos Cab S

A few brief words on the back label of a bottle I opened recently caught my attention: “…vineyard with ungrafted pre-phylloxera Bordeaux rootstock.” But the wine wasn’t from Bordeaux, it was from Chile – Los Vascos’ Cabernet Sauvignon (Majestic, £9.99) – and the phylloxera bug hit Bordeaux in the 1870s. So, what’s the link between Bordeaux and Chile, was the vineyard really planted almost 150 years ago before phylloxera and what does it mean that the rootstocks are ungrafted?

To start answering those questions, we need to turn the clock back to around 1850 when a number of wealthy Chileans began to travel to Europe. Not only did they enjoy the sights, they also experienced some of its fine wines, which were very different from those available in Chile at the time.

One visitor was so impressed, he imported a selection of vine varieties from Bordeaux and hired a French winemaker to make his wine for him. This, of course, was some 20 years before France’s phylloxera infestation, and so no-one had even thought about the need to graft vines to combat the disease.

What is grafting? It involves planting a vine root in the ground that is resistant to phylloxera (or whatever pest you’re trying to protect against) and then connecting your chosen non-resistant vine (eg Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay or almost any of the other varieties we know and love) to it. It is now universally accepted as the best method of protecting against phylloxera, for which there is no known cure.

Chile has been lucky – today it’s one of the few wine producing countries that remains free of this particular pest and so most of its vines are ungrafted.

But, back to the wine – the Los Vascos Cabernet Sauvignon. My wife, Hilary’s first comment was that wine tasted ‘more Old World than New’ and I know what she meant. This was a wine made in quite a restrained, elegant style without lots of the overt fruit flavours found in many New World wines. The reason for this probably lies in the fact that the estate is managed by Domaines Barons de Rothschild of Château Lafite fame; the lean Bordeaux influence certainly shows through and maintains a link to that region now dating back almost 170 years.

Best of the Rest

In 1855, around 60 of the leading estates in the Médoc and Graves areas of Bordeaux joined together to form an exclusive club. Known variously as the Classed Growths, the Crus Classés or simply the 1855 Classification, these 60 were then sub-divided into 5 categories called 1st to 5th Growths in English, Premiers to Cinquièmes Crus in French.

That Classification has remained largely undisturbed in the 160 years since. Surprising? Perhaps. Yet, being at the top of this pinnacle has given the 4 original 1st Growth estates (joined by a 5th member in 1974) enormous pricing power and, as a result, the ability to re-invest massively to ensure the continuing predominance of their wines. Even those at the lower end of this select group – the 4th or 5th Growths – are, in the main, highly sought-after and you can often pay £50 and more for a ready-to-drink bottle from one of their better vintages.

But, look outside this elite classification and you can find attractive wines, typical of the Bordeaux region, at much more affordable prices. I often point my students to a group of these that I describe as ‘the best of the rest’. They’re known as the Crus Bourgeois.

One of the most recognised of these is Château Cissac. (Around £20 a bottle for the excellent 2010 vintage from specialist wine merchants).

Cissac (2)

Cissac is well placed right in the heart of the Haut-Médoc, close to the boundaries of the St Estèphe and Paulliac Appellations. Its wines, mainly made from Cabernet Sauvignon blended with some Merlot and a small addition of Petit Verdot, are quite aromatic but fairly restrained and need time to reach their peak – even the 2010 I opened recently was still showing some tannin.

Although, no doubt, without the length and complexity of some of the top Classified estates (speaking from reports rather than recent personal experience!), wines such as this provide pleasant, satisfying drinking and are recommended for those who enjoy the more traditional style of wine found in Bordeaux.

Try Bordeaux’s Whites too

Bordeaux’s reputation rests mainly on its Cabernet and Merlot dominated red wines and its luscious sweet Sauternes.  But, as we found when we visited the city a couple of years back, there are some attractive dry whites produced there, too.  These are usually made from Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc or a mixture of the 2 (occasionally with some Muscadelle added for a little grapey interest), but not always.  We recently opened a bottle that was a much rarer blend of Sémillon with Colombard – and really enjoyed it.

bourg whiteChâteau de la Grave Grains Fins (Wine Society, £10.50) is deliciously refreshing with lovely pineapple and peach flavours and a long clean finish.  The peachiness reminded me a little of Viognier but that’s not an approved variety in Bordeaux so, in this case, the taste was most likely as a result of the inclusion of the Colombard.

Although not a particularly well-known grape variety, Colombard has been grown here for many years but, perhaps more significantly, slightly further north in the Charente region, where it, along with Ugni Blanc, is used in the production of the brandy known as Armagnac.  Sadly, demand for Armagnac has declined sharply in recent years and the producers are increasingly diverting Colombard into good value white wines; look in your supermarkets for Côtes de Gascogne or Charentais where the grape’s peachiness adds to the attraction of these crisp, easy-drinking bottles.

But, back to the Château de la Grave.  Despite the ‘Grave’ name, it’s not from that area of Bordeaux.  Instead, it comes from the Côtes de Bourg, an interesting but not highly-regarded Appellation slightly further north overlooking the Dordogne River.  As with the rest of Bordeaux, white Bourg wines are of secondary importance to reds but, at their best, both can be really drinkable as well as extremely good value.

One Grape or More?

Some winemakers make their wines entirely from a single grape variety whereas others prefer to mix 2 varieties – and there are many instances of producers blending 3, 4 or even more different grapes into their wines.  Why the difference and which is better?

The answer depends on who you speak to:

Red Burgundya Burgundian, whose whites would be made exclusively from Chardonnay and reds from Pinot Noir would say that a single variety is best; they would argue that it produces a more focussed wine and lets the quality of the grape variety used show through.  They would also, no doubt, add that it had been that way for generations in Burgundy so why change?

Someone from Bordeaux or the Rhône would strongly disagree.  Both regions regularly make their wines from a mix of varieties – up to 13 different ones in some Côtes du Rhône.  Their view would be that blending different varieties gives a more complex wine, with the characteristics of each variety contributing to the final product. 

2017-11-16 10.44.11But, there’s another reason for blending in cooler climates such as Bordeaux: as an ‘insurance policy’ in case of poor weather.  There, a spring frost would damage the young shoots of the early-flowering Merlot but leave the Cabernet Sauvignon untouched.  On the other hand, if there is rain at harvest time, the later-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon may be the one to suffer while the Merlot will already be picked and in the winery, starting to ferment.   

That last comment also answers I question I hear quite often: when is the blending done when different varieties are used?  Although there are a few examples of 2 varieties being fermented together (Syrah and Viognier in some parts of the Northern Rhône, for example), more usually, each variety is fermented separately immediately after harvesting and the blending is done at the end of the process.

So which is better – a single variety or a blend?  For me, both are equally good in their own way, but, as with so much in the wine world, it’s all down to your personal taste.

The 2018 Harvest

harvest 2017A few weeks ago, I blogged about the record high summer temperatures across much of Europe and how these might lead to the same problems growers experienced in the heatwave year of 2003.  Then, many wines tasted ‘cooked’ and lacked freshness and most were past their best much sooner than expected.  But, the reports I’ve seen recently suggest that my worries may have been misplaced.  In fact, the word is that, so far, the grapes harvested this year have shown excellent levels of ripeness and volumes are up on 2017.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that there have been no challenges during the growing season; many have noted that, as the heat was accompanied by humidity, vine diseases, notably mildew which attacks both leaves and berries, have been a major problem.  And harvesting has had to be careful and painstaking as pickers are often finding healthy grapes and shrivelled, dried out berries in the same bunches.

But the 2018 harvest is only part way through and, where later ripening varieties are involved, things are still uncertain.  Take Bordeaux as an example: there, the white grapes were all gathered in by the end of August and are now safely in the fermentation tanks.  Now, thoughts are turning to the Merlot, which, in most places will be reaching full ripeness.  I’ve not heard that the storms that affected the UK last week had an impact on Bordeaux to any great extent and, hopefully, that variety will be soon be picked and it, too, will no longer be subject to the vagaries of our autumn weather.

More problematic is the Cabernet Sauvignon which some growers are insisting needs at least another three weeks of dry, warm weather to fully ripen.  Will they get it?  There will certainly be nervous eyes looking at the skies for rain clouds.  The decision of when to pick is such a crucial one; too early means the grapes are short of peak ripeness and the wine will taste thin and green but waiting may risk rain, rot and a ruined crop.

The challenges of being a winemaker!

 

 

 

Look for the Gravel

Gravel

Wines from the Graves area in the south of Bordeaux will be well-known to many wine lovers.  The area takes its name from the French word for gravel, which describes the soil conditions there – conditions that are shared with many of the most prestigious parts of Bordeaux’s Haut-Medoc (see picture above, thanks to Wine and Spirit Education Trust). 

So, why is the gravel so important?  Two reasons: firstly, it ensures that the ground is well-drained so that, although the vines can get enough water to help them grow (assuming it rains at the right time), their roots aren’t sitting in water which might rot them.  And secondly – and this is particularly important in wine regions with marginal climates such as Bordeaux – each tiny piece of gravel acts as a mini storage heater, absorbing the heat of the sun during the day and radiating it out at night.  This means that the vineyard retains heat – and the grapes continue to ripen – even after the sun has gone down.

But Graves isn’t the world’s only wine region where gravel plays its part: the same thing happens in the area known as the Gimblett Gravels in New Zealand’s Hawkes Bay.  This was an area created less than 150 years ago when a devastating flood caused the River Ngaruroro to change its course and left the deep gravel of the former river bed exposed.  Despite the parallels with Bordeaux (including the relatively cool climate), it took more than 100 years before the vine growing potential of the area was recognised.  But, since 1990, the Gimblett Gravels have been an important source of – mainly red – wines.  And, not surprisingly, the majority of the grapes planted there are Bordeaux varieties.

Craggy RangeWe opened an exceptional example recently: Craggy Range’s Te Kahu (Majestic, £15.99) is mainly Merlot with some Malbec (yes, that is a Bordeaux variety, even though Argentina is now claiming it as its own!), Cabernet Sauvignon and a touch of Cabernet Franc also in the blend.  Delightfully smooth and fresh with lovely black fruits and just a subtle hint of spice, this is really delicious and a real bargain compared to many Bordeaux reds of this quality.

So, next time you’re in a vineyard, whether in Bordeaux, New Zealand or somewhere else, look down and, if there’s gravel beneath your feet, it is likely that the wine will be something special.