Bordeaux Blends Not from Bordeaux

Recently, Bill was most kind to acquiesce my suggestion of hosting a wine tasting class where we’d examine Bordeaux Blends not from Bordeaux. Even more happily, because I’d suggested the class, I didn’t have to pay! πŸ™‚

What an amazing selection of wines! We completely lucked out. Some favorites:

2010 Renacer R Mendoza Argentina $70
(98 Mc, 2 CF)
Got the blueberry notes from the Cabernet Franc. Some amount of residual sugar lent a sweet finish to this wine. Soft, plush. Someone called it – “chocolate cherry candy”

2010 Valentin Bianchi Enzo Bianchi Mendoza Argentina $55
(85 CS, 8 Mc, 4 M, 3PV)
Nose of Cabernet Sauvignon – of smoke, cocoa, espresso. Beautiful structure, soft. Like a California Bordeaux blend

2011 Ernie Els Signature Stellenbosch South Africa $100
(60 CS, 25 M, 5 ea Mc, CF, PV)
One of our favorites of the evening, which is all the more surprising because it is not often we come across such an excellent South African wine. Fruit forward, gorgeous structure. Bright

2008 Frescobaldi Mormoreto Tuscany Italy $75
(60 CS, 25 M, 12 CF, 3 PV)
Another favorite. Nice nose with a lovely perfume. Bit of mint, figs, spice

2011 Rodney Strong Symmetry Alexander Valley Sonoma California $60
(73 CS, 13 Mc, 4 M, 3 PV)
Another favorite. Nice nose, sweet, juicy. Someone said, “exquisite control”. Love that word, exquisite.

2010 Cornerstone The Cornerstone Napa Valley California $150
(82 CS, 11 M, 7 CF)
Metallic, strong nose. Drack fruit, somewhat extracted. Chocolate covered cherries. Smooth.

Afterwards, Bill also put to pen an article for the Chicago Tribune:

Bordeaux style, outside Bordeaux
Bill St. John, October 21 2014

Many of the world’s enduringly favored wines are blends of grape varieties. Red Rioja, Cotes du Rhone, Champagne, Chianti Classico, Chateauneuf du Pape, port, the GSM (grenache, syrah, mourvedre) blends of Australia β€” the list is long.

But no blended wine is as sought-after as red Bordeaux; none, either, is as copied.

The reds of Bordeaux, mixes of grapes such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc, range in cost from a few dollars to many hundreds β€” per bottle. Bordeaux blends of the same and other red grapes, made in many regions far from Bordeaux, often cost the same.

The main reason, it appears, is prestige. The high asking prices, the heavy glass bottles and fantastical names of many Bordeaux blends outside Bordeaux seem like keys to a rarefied “me too” club.

But after tasting through more than three dozen Bordeaux blends from seven countries (and six winemaking regions within our own) and that ranged in cost from $20 to $175 a bottle, it’s apparent that a lot of over-reaching is also going on.

Going back in time, the main reason for the Bordeaux blend was agricultural. Winemakers used merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc (to name the three most important grapes in the blend) less because they tasted good together than that the three budded, flowered and ripened at different times from spring to fall. The main reason for the blend, ironically, was so you didn’t need to have a blend: If the merlot failed because of poor set of the fruit, well there was going to be some cabernet sauvignon to harvest and sell.

The grapes also flourished in different sections of Bordeaux because each was more adaptable to some soil types than to others. One blend, weighted with cabernet sauvignon, characterizes many wines from the Medoc; a second Bordeaux, far heavier in merlot, characterizes those made on the Right Bank (north of the rivers that divide the region), in places such as St. Emilion or Pomerol.

There is no one true Bordeaux blend, even though a high percentage of cabernet sauvignon is often an expected starting point. (Despite that about two and a half times more merlot than cabernet sauvignon grows in Bordeaux itself.)

The romantic idea that merlot softens cabernet sauvignon’s astringency or fattens and plumps up its austerity reads back into Bordeaux blends an idea or goal that wasn’t there at the outset of the blend itself.

In the 1800s, in fact, syrah β€” sometimes syrah brought in from the Northern Rhone β€” was part of the Bordeaux blend. The idea was to darken what was then a light red wine. Such wines were said to have been “Hermitaged,” after the Rhone’s famed source of syrah.

So, on the one hand, it’s easy to copycat a Bordeaux blend outside of Bordeaux, even if no one β€” including many a Bordelais β€” puts one together for the original reasons.

The goal everywhere is just to make as good a red wine with the best grapes that you can grow. For some places, that might mean not using much if any cabernet sauvignon, for example, and starting with your strong suit. That explains many Argentine Bordeaux blends strong in malbec (part of the original Bordeaux blend in Bordeaux, but in a bit role), or the way carmenere dominates some high-end Chilean red blends.

But because the idea of craft takes precedence nowadays in the making of Bordeaux blends β€” not the necessities of agriculture or matching grape variety to site β€” too many Bordeaux blends (even from Bordeaux) have become a kind of brag in a bottle. It’s “lemme show you what I got, what I can do” and a lot less about where the wine comes from.

The lack of a sense of place in many Bordeaux blends is a shame. So many are just Big Red Wine. They taste and feel as if they could have come from anywhere because they come primarily from someone, a craftsperson intent on fashioning an idea of a wine of prestige.


The Bordeaux blends that I do want to recommend to you β€” some of which are costly, yes, but very well-made wines β€” appear as if an ambassador of their place, their terroir, not only as examples of skilled craft. I list them by price.

2010 Michel Torino Altimus, Cafayate, Argentina: More than half malbec and shows it; firmed up and perfumed by cabernets franc and sauvignon. $35-$40

2010 J. Lohr Cuvee PAU, Paso Robles, California: Killer rendition of Bordeaux’s Pauillac (hence the moniker) that uses malbec and merlot like mortar to shore up the high tones of cabernet sauvignon; beautifully aromatic. $50

2012 Justin Vineyards & Winery Justification, Paso Robles, California: Right Bank style with just over half cabernet franc; red fruits accented with black notes (coffee, licorice); super juicy & lengthy. $50-$55

2010 Valentin Bianchi Enzo Bianchi, Mendoza, Argentina: A gorgeous wine, nearly all cabernet sauvignon; sensual in all its parts, especially the long, haunting finish. $55

2009 Cenyth, Sonoma, California: Perfect Bordeaux copy, perhaps because it’s made by the daughter of a renowned Bordelais winemaker? California fruit, French breeding. $60

2011 Rodney Strong Symmetry, Alexander Valley, Sonoma, California: Super example of taking solid Sonoma fruit and silkening it, adding notes to nose and texture. $60

2010 Maculan Rosso Fratta, Veneto, Italy: Adds the rusticity of Veneto terroir to 65 percent cabernet sauvignon and 35 percent merlot; craft but placed in its soil. $81

2008 Cousino-Macul Lota, Maipo, Chile: Full, firm, big, all Maipo cabernet and merlot, but vibrant and tangy at the same time; elegance of France, lift of southern hemisphere. $85


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