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Why Do We Blend Cabernet Sauvignon?

by David on July 1, 2009

Why is it so common to blend Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot? And what about the other well-known Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot? We speak so casually about classic Bordeaux blends, but we rarely talk about what each variety brings to the party.

First, why do we call them Bordeaux varieties when we’re here in California? As you know, only a very small amount of American wine is made of Native American grape varieties. Many of them aren’t suitable, and the rest we just don’t like! Virtually all of the varieties we use commercially came here by cuttings from Europe – thus the difficult names. You’ll find the same varieties world wide, wherever wine is grown. Perhaps it’s a case of preferring what we’re accustomed to, but we all seem to love these venerable, old varieties.

Cabernet Sauvignon

We call it the “King of Grapes,” and a serious collector’s cellar will always include great Cabernets, whether they’re from the Medoc, Napa Valley or Coonawara. Some of them are 100% Cabernet, but more often they’re blends. If Cabernet is the king of grapes, why would we choose to blend it?

As a variety, Cabernet Sauvignon is a new kid on the block compared to the ancient Pinot Noir of Burgundy or the Syrah of the Rhone. It didn’t become important in Bordeaux until the late 1700s. It’s the child of two older grapes of the region: Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. It gets its beautiful, black-currant character from the Cabernet Franc and a hint of bell pepper from the Sauvignon Blanc. If you buy Bordeaux wine from the left bank, such as a Pauillac or a Margaux, it’s predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon.

It’s a very small, thick-skinned grape and the skins lend the Cabernet its famous structure and tannin. But often, while 100% Cabernet can have what Jancis Robinson calls “sensational framework,” it can lack charm and come across as overly structured or even a bit hard. We may want to put some flesh on those bones to round it out and soften it a bit. Plus, from a practical standpoint, Cabernet is a late ripener. Bordeaux errs on the cool side climatically, so it’s smart to plant some early ripening reds as a kind of insurance policy against bad weather.

Merlot

Merlot is the most widely planted variety in Bordeaux, and it’s not just for its value as a blender. It ripens relatively early and so there’s less chance of it suffering from rain damage. Of course it makes delicious wine in its own right, and when you buy Bordeaux from the right bank, such as a Pomerol or a St. Emilion, Merlot is the dominant grape.

Merlot is thin skinned and less tannic than Cabernet Sauvignon, so it has a rounding effect on the texture. It’s softer and often more luscious than Cabernet, so it fits the bill as the grape to flesh out those Cabernet bones. It’s not unusual to find 100% Merlot, but quite often some Cabernet is blended in. Pure Merlot may be just a little too soft and blending in some Cabernet brings some structure and discipline to the blend! Merlot has a tendency to herbaceousness which is emphasized when it comes from cold climates or is picked on the low end of the ripeness scale. Some people love the green or beet-like character it can display and others don’t. Those who don’t will prefer warm-climate Merlot. It can have a lovely, truffle-like aroma, too – an excellent component in a blend.

Cabernet Franc

Cabernet Franc ripens relatively early in the season, like Merlot, so it’s another great choice for a cool climate. It’s not viewed by most winemakers as a stand alone variety. In fact, it’s rarely a major player in a blend, with the famous exception of Chateau Cheval Blanc, which is often about 2/3 Cabernet Franc and the balance, Merlot – a most unusual blend! In most growing conditions it makes red wine that’s lighter in color, body and tannin than Cabernet Sauvignon. For instance, it makes the bright, early-maturing red wine of Chinon in the Loire Valley. When it’s blended with Cabernet, it’s nearly always for its seductive, black currant perfume. That’s certainly the case here in Napa Valley. It’s a highly aromatic variety and can make the wine more fragrant.

Malbec

If you’re a fan of red wine from Argentina, then you’ve certainly tasted a dark, meaty Malbec. It’s the only place other than Cahors, in southern France, where it’s the main variety planted. Chile also grows a significant amount of Malbec. In Bordeaux it’s blended primarily for its inky, dark pigment, but it also brings a sense of bigness to the blend. It’s more similar to Merlot than any of the other red Bordeaux varieties, but it’s not as fruity. It’s spicier and it can be a bit rustic. It’s on the decline in Bordeaux because it ripens late in the season and displays green character if it’s harvested too early. In a Meritage style blend it’s typically a very minor player, often less than 10% of the blend.

Petit Verdot

Petit Verdot is another variety that’s on the decline in Bordeaux because it ripens even later than Cabernet Sauvignon. However, some of the best producers in Bordeaux continue to pursue it, because when it’s fully mature, it makes very concentrated wine with great color. It’s another thick-skinned variety and can bring richness and spice to the blend and help to make the wine more age-worthy. It’s used to bolster the alcohol, when it’s lacking, which can be an issue in cold climates. In Napa Valley, there’s no challenge getting it ripe most years and it’s valued for its pigment, concentration and Syrah-like spiciness. You’ll see it as a varietal occasionally, but otherwise, like Malbec, it’s usually a bit player in the total blend.

A few years ago here at Goosecross, it became apparent that we’d have to replant our home vineyard, which was declining due to Pierce’s Disease1. After almost 25 years, we had a chance to take a fresh look at our property and re-evaluate what belongs here. We brought in three different consultants to take soil samples and check the meso-climate2 throughout our 9.5-acre site. The unanimous recommendation was to plant red Bordeaux varieties, and so our new vineyard has quite a lot of Cabernet Sauvignon, some Merlot and a bit of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, too.

For Geoff Gorsuch, our Winemaker, the different varieties in the barrels are like paints on a palette-the rich Cabernet, the soft, elegant Merlot, the fragrant Cabernet Franc and the rather voluptuous Petit Verdot. After making many, many trial blends it’s his job to decide how to marry them together in the most delicious possible way. Every year it’s a new ball game and he has a fresh chance to experiment with mixing those paints and brushing them onto the canvas to create a memorable blend for us to enjoy with our family and friends at the dinner table.

Footnotes:

  1. Pierce’s Disease: an incurable disease carried by an insect (see the GCU article on The Glassy-winged Sharpshooter) that feeds on an infected plant, and then transmits the bacteria when it feeds on the next one. The bacteria get into the grapevine and multiply, spreading throughout the plant’s system, blocking the movement of water, nutrients and minerals. As the vines become weaker, the grapes won’t ripen and eventually the infected vineyard must be replanted.
  2. Meso-climate: the climate of a vineyard site, hillside or valley. The term “micro-climate” is mistakenly used in its place extremely often. Micro-climate correctly refers to the climate immediately surrounding the individual vine canopy (or green growth) and grape clusters. Vineyard and canopy management will strongly influence the micro-climate, but not the meso-climate.

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