Grape Expectations: A quick guide to three noble grapes of Bordeaux

With all the hype surrounding the 2015 vintage in Bordeaux - which really is shaping up rather nicely - we thought it was a good idea to have a closer look at three of the grapes that go into making some of the greatest and most sought after wines in the world.
Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc are the three main players in the making of red Bordeaux and each have a key part to play in the assemblage (or blend) of the finished wine. The best wines of Bordeaux have always been produced using a blend of different grapes. It’s the whole of its parts that comes from blending grape varieties that creates the magic tasted in Bordeaux wine and really nowhere else can quite match it. There are a few stunning 100% wines from Pomerol and St. Emilion but the vast majority of the time, Merlot, due to its rich, opulent textures is the perfect pairing for blending with the more tannic, firmer Cabernet Sauvignon grape.

In fact, the only requirement to make a Bordeaux blend is that it include at least two of the main Bordeaux varietals - Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.
The king of grapes. Is the oldest Bordeaux grape variety; it gives a wine high in colour, and acidity with a low percentage of alcohol, and very tannic. It matures late and keeps very well, it ages very well and can last for decades. Typically the grape expresses aromas of ripe blackcurrant, and blackcurrant leaves, fern, smoke, blackberry, green pepper, liquorice, Eucalyptus, undergrowth, tobacco, truffle, vanilla, violet and more. One of cabernet sauvignon’s assets is that it maintains good varietal definition and flavour under reasonably different production and climatic regimes. It’s a vigorous vine, it grows easily in a variety of different soils.

It is used in all blends of Bordeaux appellations but most especially in Médoc (Pauillac, Margaux, Saint-Estèphe…) and Graves (Pessac-Léognan).
The most widely planted grape variety in Bordeaux, gives pleasant wines that are subtle, full of colour, high in alcohol with medium acidity and moderate levels of tannin. It holds an intense colour, and when blended with Cabernet franc it gives the wine a greater lightness, more delicacy and moelleux. It ripens earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon and its wine is susceptible to oxidation so it is worth avoiding exposing it too often to the air.

Aromas of cherry, leather, spices, strawberry jam, blackberry, dark chocolate, game and hints of sloe, prune, liquorice, truffle, violet… Merlot is present in all clarets and makes up 70 %, even 90% sometimes, of Pomerol blends. The most famous (and most expensive) Merlot dominant wine in Bordeaux is Chateau Petrus. 

Gives a very fine quality wine, full of perfume, of a lighter colour than Cabernet-Sauvignon produced wine, and less rich in tannin; thus it ages faster.  It still has high acidity and therefore is used sparingly to compliment the other two major players adding earthiness and a smoothing texture to the overall wine.

Aromas of cocoa, blackcurrant (sometimes with notes of brambles), quince, ivy leaf, fern, undergrowth, strawberry, raspberry, dry pepper, green pepper, violet …

It is present in all Bordeaux blends as a complementary variety, but never dominant, but it holds an important place (20 to 50 %) in Saint-Emilion where it combines with Merlot. This variety adds finesse and a typical aromatic notes lifting the bouquet of a wine.
In general, red wines from the left bank of the Gironde, particularly from the Medoc region of Bordeaux, are based on Cabernet Sauvignon, blended with varying amounts of Merlot. These red wines are dry and firm, with a solid tannic spine, and are often austere in their youth. They are among the longest-lived wines made anywhere. Red wines from the gravel and sandy soils of Graves often show a bit more texture early on, as well as more roasted notes of smoke, hot stones, and tobacco. Wines from Bordeaux's Right Bank, located mostly to the east of the town of Libourne, are blends based on the softer Merlot grape. They are generally fleshier and more pliant than wines from the Medoc and are accessible earlier, though the best of them are capable of improving in bottle for decades.
Regardless of the actual percentage of each grape in the final blended wine it is vital to pick the grapes at their optimum ripeness (not easy considering the changeable weather and climate) and blend them accordingly taking into account the style of wine the winemaker wants to make. The idea being to let the flavours and aromas marry and complement each other not just straight away but for years to come as the wine matures. Most Bordeaux, especially from the Left Bank will only come into its drinking window 4 or 5 years after the wine is bottled and could last decades.
Here is a link to some of the Chateau in our en primeur campaign which we think are smart buys and represent good value for money.
Happy drinking!