It is pretty typical to say that what grows together tends to be together. The phrase seems not to be confined to just food, but it also seems to extend to food-and-wine pairings. One step further, in the world of making wine, what grows together tends to get blended together. Old World traditions have been formulated to produce the same style of wine with very little interpretation year-to-year, other than how the microclimate had differed.
“Old World” is defined as those places of the world that have been growing grapes for more than a thousand years (France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Austria, Portugal). “New World,” then, is defined as everywhere else that has been producing wine for less than a thousand years. While the new world may not have the lengthy experimental history, they can take cues from the Old World in how they develop masterful blends.
Let us just consider the primary five grapes in Bordeaux, France: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. French tradition would lend you to believe that you would either start with Cabernet Sauvignon (Left Bank) as the primary grape or Merlot (Right Bank) as the primary grape. Then, depending on the vineyard’s location would you add in, or not add in, the rest of the grapes. Traditions would define how much of each grape can be added into the blend and how each part may, or may not be, required to be aged prior to being “assembled.” Perhaps that will be the topic of another blog. Coming back to the topic of blends, one must first understand the characteristic of each ingredient and what it brings to a blend.
Cabernet Sauvignon, a cornerstone of many exceptional red blends, presents a profile characterized by moderate-to-high acidity, and high tannins. The texture of its tannins is firm and structured, contributing to a full-bodied wine that exudes intensity. On the palate, bold and powerful, it establishes a dominant presence with strong notes of black currant and dark fruit, creating a rich and full-bodied initial impression. As the wine progresses through the mid-palate, the structured tannins reveal themselves, enhancing complexity and depth. Additional nuances of cedar, tobacco, and sometimes green bell pepper may emerge, adding layers to the overall flavor profile. The finish is a testament to Cabernet Sauvignon’s age-worthy nature, boasting a long and lingering conclusion, where the firm tannins contribute to the wine's robust and enduring character. Overall, Cabernet Sauvignon brings a bold and powerful dimension to red blends, making a significant impact on both the palate and the aging potential of the wine.
Merlot, a versatile and approachable grape in red blends, brings forth a well-balanced array of characteristics. With moderate acidity and lower tannins compared to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot offers a wine with a soft and velvety texture, embodying a medium to full-bodied profile. Upon approach, it charms the palate with a smooth and inviting demeanor, unveiling a burst of ripe red fruits such as plum and black cherry. This initial impression is notably softer, compared to the boldness of Cabernet Sauvignon. As the wine progresses through the mid-palate, the velvety texture persists, and additional layers of flavor emerge, featuring notes of chocolate or cocoa. The wine maintains its medium-to-full-bodied feel, creating a harmonious and rounded experience. The finish is a testament to Merlot's finesse, closing with a round and smooth demeanor, occasionally adorned with lingering notes of red fruits and a subtle touch of spice. Altogether, Merlot contributes a pleasing and accessible dimension to red blends, enhancing overall balance and drinkability.
Cabernet Franc, a grape known for its elegance and aromatic complexity, contributes distinctive attributes to red blends. With a moderate-to-high acidity and moderate tannins, Cabernet Franc strikes a balance that places it between the robustness of Cabernet Sauvignon and the softer tannins of Merlot. The texture of its tannins is notably silkier than Cabernet Sauvignon, but more structured than Merlot, resulting in a wine that is medium-to-full-bodied. On the approach, Cabernet Franc captivates with an elegant and aromatic demeanor, featuring a mix of red fruit and floral notes. This grape tends to be more perfumed on the palate, compared to some other Bordeaux varieties. As the wine progresses through the mid-palate, the moderate tannins come to the forefront, unveiling a combination of red fruit flavors alongside herbal and sometimes spicy characteristics. The finish is a highlight of Cabernet Franc, often refined and graceful, with a lingering spiciness and occasional hints of green bell pepper, adding complexity and a unique signature to the overall blend. In summary, Cabernet Franc brings a layer of sophistication and aromatic charm, making it a valuable component in red blends.
Malbec, a robust and alluring grape, imparts distinctive qualities to red blends. Featuring moderate acidity and moderate-to-high tannins, Malbec strikes a balance that lends structure without overwhelming the palate. The texture of its tannins is notably velvety and plush, contributing to a full-bodied wine. Upon approach, Malbec is plush and inviting, captivating the senses with a burst of dark fruit flavors, including blackberry and plum. This initial impression is marked by a velvety texture that sets the tone for the entire tasting experience. As the wine progresses through the mid-palate, the moderate-to-high tannins come forward, adding structure and complexity to the flavor profile. Additional notes of smokiness or cocoa may emerge, enhancing the overall richness of the wine. The finish is a highlight, characterized by a smooth and sometimes spicy conclusion that further contributes to the wine's depth and allure. In summary, Malbec brings a bold and velvety dimension to red blends, elevating the overall character with its dark fruit flavors and nuanced finish.
Petit Verdot, a grape of pronounced character, contributes bold and dynamic elements to red blends. Displaying moderate-to-high acidity, and very high tannins, Petit Verdot establishes a commanding presence on the palate. The texture of its tannins is notably aggressive and gripping, creating a full-bodied wine that demands attention. The approach is nothing short of intense and concentrated, marked by a deep color and powerful aromas of dark berries and florals. Petit Verdot often makes a bold entrance in a blend, setting the stage for a memorable tasting experience. As the wine progresses through the mid-palate, the high tannins are reinforced, unveiling a complex array of flavors, including intense dark berries, floral notes, and perhaps a touch of graphite. The finish is a grand finale, long and robust, where the gripping tannins leave a lasting impression of depth and intensity. Petit Verdot's contribution to a red blend is distinctive, adding structure, complexity, and an undeniable sense of power that enhances the overall character of the wine.
Bordeaux winemakers lean on terroir as a central contributing factor in creating their blends. Their goal is to create structure and complexity. Napa winemakers may craft their blends to emphasize ripe fruit flavors, often dominated by bold Cabernet Sauvignon and influenced by pronounced new oak notes. Chilean winemakers drive for value-driven Bordeaux-style blends with a balance of fruit-forwardness and structure. Australian winemakers, like in the Margaret River on the western side, focus on elegance and structure. South Africa's Stellenbosch winemakers deliver bold and complex Bordeaux blends. Each region imparts its unique signature, providing wine enthusiasts with a rich tapestry of options, from the classic elegance of Bordeaux to the diverse and innovative expressions found in other global terroirs.