At a tasting the other day, when the host referred to Malbec as a Bordeaux variety the guy sitting next to me said “I thought Malbec is from Argentina.” And, well you might think, since Argentina has truly made this grape their own. Here’s the story in brief:
What’s your favorite Malbec? Got any great values for us to try? C’mon! Let us know!
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Petit who? Yeah, this one doesn’t get to be the star of the show very often. Many winemakers feel that Petit Verdot is kind of a bull in a china shop as a varietal wine. But when the winemaker wants to pump up the volume of a Bordeaux blend (Meritage wine), single digit quantities of PV can work its magic. A winemaker friend refers to PV as a “blending goddess” in that regard.
We’ve been focusing on Bordeaux varieties to kick off the grape of the week theme, and this’ll be the last of the reds, even though there are a few very obscure varieties that are included in the group.
Roots Historians believe that it was recognized in Bordeaux before Cabernet Sauvignon, which means its been around since at least the late 1700s, and it has played its part as a minor component in the blend since then. As it gains popularity in the new world, less and less of it is grown in Bordeaux because it’s a late ripener, which is a tricky business in a cool climate. The best houses continue to take the risk because they like the way it ramps up the pigment, alcohol and adds volume to the mouthfeel. It can also boost longevity.
What to expect If you like a lot of intensity and tannin in your red wine, do a search and you’ll find varietal Petit Verdot made here in Napa Valley and some other – mostly new-world – wine regions. Continue reading →
Since we started out with the King of Grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon, it seems only proper to follow up with Cab’s good buddy, Merlot.
The Biggest Question One of the most common questions I hear at seminars and classes is “What’s the difference between Cabernet and Merlot?” It’s a good question, too, because even winemakers often mix up the two in blind tastings. Perhaps that’s the reason they blend so well – they’re similar.
The most important difference is that Merlot is thin skinned, compared to Cabernet, and slightly plumper, so it can be lighter in color and body (the grape skins are the source of all the color and most of the flavor, texture and tannin in red wine.) And, it’s less tannic, which translates to early drinking enjoyment, right? Merlot often shows red fruit intermingled with black, where Cab is firmly in black territory. And, it’s a bit more herbaceous and leaves a fleshy impression where Cabernet comes off as more structured (tannic) and austere. I love Jancis Robinson’s characterization of Merlot as “Cabernet without the pain.”
The Impact of Sideways: Many blame this comedy (if you have ever toured wine country this movie is a must – my summary is “Two men behaving badly.”) for transforming Merlot from being the “it” red to a fifth wheel. But, what the lead character, Miles, forgot is that Merlot has been making great wine for centuries! In fact, Chateau Pétrus, a great Bordeaux that is consistently one of the world’s most expensive wines, is – you guessed it – Merlot. It runs around $1000.00/bottle these days.
TRIVIA! The most expensive wine ever sold is a bottle of 1787 Chateau Lafite – a first growth from the Medoc). It went for $160,000 at a Christie’s auction in 1985. Thomas Jefferson’s initials, etched on the glass, added immeasurably to its value. Continue reading →
Reply: Hi, Meredith. Thanks for writing. A Meritage wine is an American-made (so far), Bordeaux-style blend. And, what’s a Bordeaux blend? It’s a blend made from grapes that come from Bordeaux and these are some very well-known varieties, indeed: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Sauvignon Blanc. And also some varieties that aren’t so well known such as Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Carmenere and Semillon. And, some truly obscure varieties: St. Macaire, Gros Verdot (red) and Muscadelle du Bordolais(white). The producer can make a red Meritage or a white one.
So, those are the permitted varieties for the blend and the blend rule is that it must include at least two of these varieties and no single variety should make up more than 90% of the blend.
Do we need this complication in our lives? Probably not, but here’s why the Meritage Alliance came about. After the repeal of Prohibition some truly yucky wines with European regional names like Rhine Wine and Chianti were made in the US and offered for sale. This was misleading and the producers of the real thing, in Europe, weren’t too happy.
Varietal wine, which is wine based on a dominant variety, came into fashion and also became the benchmark for quality wine in the US. The Federal varietal requirement is a minimum of 75% of the grape named on the label. Continue reading →
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 Continue reading →