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:
a 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.
But, 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.
A 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!
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.
We 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.
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.
Château 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.
Ever since Bordeaux’s Cité du Vin (City of Wine) opened last year, it has been on my ‘to do’ list. So, when we visited that part of south-west France for a few days recently, we took the 10 minute tram ride from the centre and found ourselves in front of the very striking piece of architecture that was designed and built specifically to house the wine exhibition.
Buying our tickets in advance on line (20 euros each if you specify a date, 5 euros extra for an ‘Open’ ticket you can use any day), we could (and should) have avoided the queues in the foyer. But we eventually made our way to the 1st floor for a fascinating display on ‘Georgia, the birthplace of wine’. Dozens of artefacts, some dating back more than 2000 years, combined with a couple of short films and some very detailed display boards (in English and French) told the story of the early days of wine and highlighted how some ancient processes – like fermenting in clay urns buried in the ground – were still being used today. Sadly, this part of the exhibition is only temporary and will close in early November to be replaced by something as yet unspecified.
One floor up and you move into the main display area – and firmly into the 21st century. Here, equipped with multi-lingual headphones, you are faced with a series of interactive screens dealing with different aspects of the wine world. Click one and you can choose from a number of famous growers and wine makers talking about their wines; another and you join a virtual dinner table with top chefs and sommeliers chatting about food and wine matching. All very cleverly and glossily presented and with admirably little jargon. One problem: there is just so much to see, you need to be very selective – or come back several times.
After a couple of hours here, we started thinking of lunch. There’s a formal restaurant on the 7th floor (pre-booking essential) or the ‘Latitude 20’ wine bar on the ground floor where we can recommend the cheese or meat platters (1 is plenty for 2 people to share) together with a glass of wine from an interesting and eclectic list – the soft and warming Georgian red is worth trying.
Before leaving, be sure to take the lift up to the Belvedere on the top floor where you can enjoy a glass of wine (included with your ticket price) and have a marvellous panorama over the city of Bordeaux.
Ask a wine lover to name a sweet wine and chances are the reply will be ‘Sauternes’. This golden nectar is made from a blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes (with occasionally a little Muscadelle as well) in a tiny area 6 miles long by barely 4 miles wide a short drive south of Bordeaux. Both the location and the grape varieties are vital to making Sauternes the wine it is.
Sauvignon Blanc is a naturally high acid variety and so adds refreshing ‘lift’ to the wine which, without it, could be dull and cloying. But it’s the Semillon that holds the real key. It is a very thin-skinned variety and, as such, is very susceptible to rot. Rot is normally an enemy to winemakers, introducing off flavours into wine, but in certain circumstances, a particular type of rot becomes a friend. And in the warm, damp, humid conditions often occurring during a Bordeaux autumn, this so-called ‘noble’ rot (or botrytis) can be found most years.
Botrytis works in a strange way. It attacks the berries and makes dozens of pin-prick holes in them. Add a little sunshine and, as the grapes are warmed, the moisture inside them starts to evaporate through the holes, concentrating the sweetness in the berries so that, when they’re picked and sent to the winery for fermentation, the yeast struggles to cope with all the sugar. It converts some to alcohol, but plenty remains to give a wonderful, luscious sweet wine.
The most famous name of Sauternes, Château d’Yquem, sells for hundreds of £s a bottle, but the Château Filhot (pictured) is a remarkably good, elegant and affordable alternative, available quite widely including from Grape and Grind of Bristol for £12.99 a half bottle. Enjoy with desserts, of course (tarte tatin is a great match), but also with some blue cheese – Roquefort would be the traditional choice, but St Agur or the creaminess of a Dolcelatte would go well too.