Q & A: What’s a Bordeaux Blend?

Question from Eleanor: What’s a Bordeaux Blend? 

Reply: Thanks for writing, Eleanor! If you’ve heard of a Meritage (pronounced like “heritage” – it isn’t a French term), it’s the same thing. It’s a blend made of a mix of grapes that came to America from Bordeaux. These are the big five: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. It’s almost always red, but the best known white Bordeaux varieties are Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc.

If you’ve ever purchased a red Bordeaux, you’ve probably noticed that there’s no mention of the grape varieties. The French regulate which varieties can be used for commercial production for each region. Commit this to memory and it will be easier to buy your Bordeaux: We usually break down the wines by referring to them as right bank or left bank (the banks of the Gironde River that flows through Bordeaux).  The Left Bank, also called Medoc, is dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon and for the Right Bank (Pomerol, St. Emilion), Merlot takes the lead. With a few exceptions, the other varieties are used in very small quantities.  

Each variety contributes something a little different to the blend. Conventional wisdom:

Cabernet Sauvignon: Power, black fruit and structure
Merlot: Softer, fleshier, red fruit mixed in with the black
Cabernet Franc: Herbaceous, adds perfume, not too tannic
Malbec: Dark pigment, adds a sense of bigness
Petit Verdot: Very deeply colored, pumps up the volume, black fruit, spice

Of course it all depends upon where it’s grown and how it’s made.  

In America, if any single variety makes up 75% or more in the blend, the wine can be named for the variety. When there’s no dominant variety, the winery may choose a proprietary name like Opus One, or call it red wine. For much of our brief wine history, we’ve equated the varietal designation with quality. It’s been just over the last few decades that we’ve been enjoying domestic Bordeaux blends. If I recall correctly, Joseph Phelps winery was the pioneer when they released their first Insignia in the early seventies. Phelps also likes to produce Rhone-style blends, which are another kettle of fish entirely.

So, bottom line? Expect medium to full bodied wines from the right bank and full bodied, fairly structured wines from the left bank. I hope that helps! Most American wineries that produce a Bordeaux blend print the varietal make up on the back label. I hope that helps! Cheers! 

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2 responses to “Q & A: What’s a Bordeaux Blend?

  1. What’s a Bordeaux blend?History + terroir + money…

  2. Nancy Hawks Miller

    Right! A different way of looking at things 😉 Thanks for commenting!

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