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.

 

A Canadian Treat

We rarely see wines from Canada here in the UK so, when a good friend shared a bottle with us that had been brought back from a trip specially for him, it was a real treat.

Canadian red

I’m not familiar with Therapy Vineyards but their wonderfully named ‘Freud’s Ego’ is a delicious blend of Merlot backed up with Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc. The mix of grapes may be typical of a Right Bank Bordeaux, but this is a very different take on the blend; rich and chocolatey with lovely black fruits and hints of cinnamon and nutmeg. At 14%, it’s quite intense and full-bodied but in no way heavy and with a lightness of touch in the winemaking. A lovely bottle.

The richness rather surprised me because I note that Therapy Vineyards are based in the Okanagan Valley, about 200 miles east of Vancouver in the west of the country. Here, vineyards are at a latitude of around 50°N – roughly the same as the southern UK so, to ripen these varieties, particularly the fussy Cabernet Sauvignon, is quite a remarkable achievement. The key is the closeness of the deep, glacial Okanagan Lake which minimises the effects of spring frosts and moderates the climate, especially in winter. And, with both summer heat and sunshine being rather more dependable here than in Bordeaux and longer days due to the higher latitude, the result is the grapes ripening perfectly and reliably.

Canadian production is relatively small and costs are high so I don’t expect to see bottles from there flooding UK shelves anytime soon but, if you do see one, or you’re visiting, I suggest you try it; on the basis of my (admittedly limited) experience, I suspect you will not be disappointed.

 

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!

 

 

 

Value from St Emilion

The French region of Bordeaux produces around 700 million bottles of wine in an average year (rather less last year due to the poor weather affecting the crop yields).  That makes it easily the largest Quality Wine (Appellation Contrôlée) region of France and, putting that number in context, if Bordeaux was a country, it would be the world’s 12th largest producer, just behind Portugal.

Not surprisingly, there is considerable variety within that volume of wine; not just red, white and rosé, but dry and sweet, still and sparkling and, of course, a vast range of prices and quality – not always the same thing!

And, even within those broad categories, there are major differences in style.  Consider the reds which make up more than 80% of Bordeaux’s output, for example; if you travel north or south from the city, the wines you find will, very likely, be blends dominated by the distinctive blackcurrant flavours and aromas of Cabernet Sauvignon.  Cross the rivers to the east, however, and things change.  Here, the main grape variety is Merlot and the wines are softer, fuller-bodied and with flavours of plums and chocolate.

The pretty old town of Saint-Emilion is both the most famous tourist attraction on this side of the river and the best known wine name.  As a result, bottles from that Appellation itself are inevitably pricey but, if you look to some of Saint-Emilion’s satellites – Montagne-St-Emilion, Lussac and St Georges – there is value to be found.  

Tour Bayard M St EmilionChâteau Tour Bayard (Majestic, £12.99) comes from the first of these and has lovely red plum and black cherry flavours and the sort of reassuring softness that comes from a few months in old barrels.  The 2014 still has some tannin evident and will clearly last a few years but, decanted and with food (grilled lamb steaks recommended!), it is very drinkable now and a good introduction to the style this part of the extensive Bordeaux region has to offer.