Bordeaux Style not Bordeaux Price

Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are, according to official figures, the 2 most widely grown wine grapes in the world. It wasn’t always that way but, thanks to the reputation and popularity of red Bordeaux, there has been a trend over the last 30 years or so for wine estates all over the world to plant these 2 varieties in the hope of reproducing the quality and success of one of France’s most prestigious regions.

Some of these newcomers have made great wines, but not all. The problem is that climate, soil and other factors that influence wine style vary so much across the globe and Cabernet Sauvignon, in particular, can be quite a fussy variety. Grow it somewhere too cool and you get unripe ‘green’ flavours, such as herbs and green peppers. Too warm and the wine turns out coarse and jammy. So, you need to find somewhere just right.

How about looking for similar conditions to Bordeaux? Sounds like a good idea yet, until recent years and global warming, at least 2 or 3 Bordeaux vintages each decade were just too cool to ripen the Cabernet properly; that’s why the region has always grown Merlot, too – this less demanding grape is a more reliable ripener, even in cooler conditions.

But, there are places across the world with climates similar to Bordeaux: Hawkes Bay in New Zealand, for example. Here, growing season temperatures are just a fraction cooler (although with longer hours of sunshine) and a touch drier.   And, as you might expect, you find Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon widely planted.

NZ Cab Mer

The Wine Society’s Exhibition Hawkes Bay Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon (supplied by top producer, Craggy Range) actually includes small amounts of 2 other red Bordeaux varieties, Cabernet Franc and Malbec, to produce a wine with lovely red plum and black berry flavours, a hint of subtle smoky oak and a long silky finish.

And one advantage of buying from New Zealand rather than from Bordeaux – the price: £12.95. For this quality, a Bordeaux could easily have cost twice as much.

 

The Most Popular Grape

There’s more Cabernet Sauvignon planted in the world than any other wine grape – almost 300,000 hectares (just over 700,000 acres) according to the comprehensive study published by the University of Adelaide in 2013.  That area has more than doubled since 1990 and is almost certainly still growing.  There are now commercial plantings of the variety in more than 30 countries.

I’m not surprised at its popularity with growers; it’s a grape capable of producing very high quality red wines and its name is widely recognised by wine lovers – always a help with marketing.  But it needs to be grown in the right conditions: too cool and you get unripe, leafy flavours; too warm and the wine tastes of jammy or cooked fruit. 

Interestingly, in its home region of Bordeaux, you almost never see a wine made entirely from Cabernet Sauvignon – there, they usually blend it with Merlot and other varieties – a legacy of the time when that part of France was, on average, a couple of degrees cooler than it is today and growers regularly struggled to ripen their Cabernet.

But elsewhere – California, Australia, South Africa, Chile and the ‘new kid on the block’, China – 100% Cabernets are common and it’s not hard to find a really good bottle, for example Robert Oatley’s Finisterre from Margaret River in Western Australia.  2017-09-03 15.07.33The climate there is ideal with warm, dry summers meaning that harvest can often take place as early as February (equivalent to August in the Northern Hemisphere), minimising the threat from autumn rain. 

Finisterre is quite restrained and subtle but has the lovely sweet blackcurrant fruit flavours that I always associate with a good Cabernet Sauvignon, topped out with some soft spice and just enough tannin to suggest that the 2013 vintage has a good few years more ahead of it.  Usually £18.99 at Waitrose, but it’s worth waiting for one of that supermarket’s regular ‘25% off’ offers when this wine becomes a great bargain and one not to be missed.

 

The Judgement of Paris Revisited

judgement-dinnerBack in May, Bristol Wine Blog remembered a famous event in the wine world that had occurred 40 years earlier, in 1976: the tasting that has come to be known as the ‘Judgement of Paris’.   A young Englishman, Steven Spurrier, living and working in Paris, invited a group of renowned French judges – restauranteurs, producers and wine writers – to compare (blind) a selection of top Californian wines – Chardonnays and Cabernets – with leading Burgundies and Bordeaux. The expectation was that the French wines would win easily.  Only it didn’t work out like that!

So, what would happen if a similar tasting took place today?  Great Western Wines in conjunction with Bath’s Allium Restaurant decided to find out.  They organised an anniversary dinner including recent vintages of the 2 winning wines, the most prestigious of the losers and, to make things interesting, a couple of other ‘mystery’ wines.  With the chance to taste such potential delights, my wife and I were quick to book tickets.

The dinner, good though it was, was always going to play second fiddle to the tastings which, mimicking the original event, comprised a group of  Chardonnays and another of Cabernet Sauvignons (or Cabernet dominated blends), all, of course, tasted blind.  Everyone present was invited to vote for their 1st, 2nd and 3rd in each category and the results were added up.   

Among the Chardonnays, the Puligny Montrachet Premier Cru ‘Les Pucelles’ (£210) gained revenge on the Chateau Montelena Napa Chardonnay (£43.50) this time, but both were beaten by the 3rd wine, Koo Yong’s Faultline Chardonnay from Australia’s Mornington Peninsula (£29.50).

The story was the same with the Cabernet Sauvignons.   Stag’s Leap SLV (£98) from California failed to repeat its earlier success.  Indeed, it, too, finished 3rd in its group behind the winning Château Mouton-Rothschild (£400) and the Cyril Henschke from Eden Valley in South Australia (£62).

A wonderful evening and a rare opportunity to taste some great wines – several at prices that I wouldn’t normally think of spending on a single bottle.  But, perhaps, more importantly, the chance to be part of an event commemorating a tasting that changed the face of the wine world for ever.

(The prices shown are those quoted by Great Western Wine.  For more information, email them at wine@greatwesternwine.co.uk).