What Do We Mean When We Say "Bordeaux Blends"?

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  • By Randy Kemner
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What Do We Mean When We Say "Bordeaux Blends"?

It has become clear that there is a new generation of wine consumer who doesn't know what it means to refer to a wine as a "Bordeaux Blend." This article will help to clear up the mystery and provide examples of some of the finest winemaking done in Napa Valley and Washington State.

Recently I had the privilege of hosting a tasting of some impressive red wines at The Wine Country.  The sellout Friday night event was originally billed as "Bordeaux-Style Blends from the Western States" at just $45 per person, but during the run-up to the event it soon became clear that a new generation of wine consumer had no idea what we were talking about. What is Bordeaux?  What is a blend? What is Bordeaux-style?  

 

A week before the tasting we had two people signed up for our tasting.  Some re-branding had to be made, and quickly.

 

Overcoming the "Western States" ambiguity was easy.  We simply changed the name of the event to specify "California and Washington State", then more specifically to "Napa Valley and Washington State."  For better or worse, there is still magic in the four-letter word Napa.  The Washington State red wines we featured, all grown on the deserty land east of the Cascades, are still a mystery to most California wine consumers even though our tasting would prove that, though distinct from Napa versions, they could easily compete with their more famous competitors.

But what about "Bordeaux-Style Blends"?  After all, California stopped emulating Bordeaux-style back in the 1990s, when alcohols and ripeness surged because of the powerful economic influence of the emerging American wine press.  To be fair, Bordeaux wines weren't immune to making softer, fruitier, darker and bolder wines, but the days where a French wine jury can't tell the difference between Napa Valley and Bordeaux in a blind tasting are long gone.

 

Yet California and Washington State winemakers still largely look to Bordeaux for their blending templates, drawing inspiration from "Left-Bank" (Medoc and Graves) and "Right-Bank" (St. Emilion and Pomerol) producers.

In short, when we refer to "Bordeaux-Blends," we're talking about blends of the red grapes officially sanctioned by the French government to be planted in Bordeaux:  Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot.  That's it.  A blend of any two, three, four or five of these grapes is a "Bordeaux-Blend".  To be truer to a Left-Bank template, there is more Cabernet Sauvignon than other varieties in the blend.  A Right-Bank template will usually feature Merlot and Cabernet Franc more prominently than Cabernet Sauvignon because of earlier ripening.  Malbec and Petit Verdot seem to be used less and less (if at all) by the big houses of Bordeaux, but they are still legally available.

(There are also white wine blends made in Bordeaux, from any combination of Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle, but that discussion is for another day.)

 

So, would the phrase "Bordeaux-Inspired Red Blends" be a more accurate description of what New-World, er, Western States, er, Napa Valley and Washington State vintners are making?  Well, mostly, but not all.  Take Blue Rock's popular Alexander Valley Baby Blue red wine ($26.99) which uses grapes of Bordeaux origin plus a dollop of Syrah, the northern Rhone grape.  This blend would never be permitted in Bordeaux, but the Syrah adds a deliciousness and suppleness to the Alexander Valley blend that makes the wine irresistible, yet still Cabernet-like in character.

So let's get back to our original problem.  Once we began refining our message, a few more people signed up for the event.  But it was still far from sold out.  As the week progressed we sent out e-mails with the wines to be offered at the tasting, including some prestige wines from Colgin, Phelps Insignia, Continuum, Quilceda Creek, Chappellet and others.  We closed the deal when our staff did a Facebook post telling everyone how much these wines cost, and emphasized that at $45, our attendees would be receiving the deal of the year.

 

And indeed it was.

 

Here are the highlights:

 

2015 Chappellet Mountain Cuvée Red Wine, Napa County

Founded in 1967, a year after Robert Mondavi built his winery, Chappellet always wanted to make more elegant wine than was being produced on the valley floor from the mountain fruit of Prichard Hill.  The affordable Mountain Cuvée today delivers on that promise, with firm structure, Cabernet-like flavors (even though the plurality of the blend is Merlot), and avoiding any sense of overripeness.  Firm tannins on the finish suggest this is a wine for a steak dinner.  Incidentally, the blend uses all five red Bordeaux varieties.

$33.99 per bottle

 

2014 DeLille D2 Red Wine, Columbia Valley, Washington

We recently ordered this wine sight-unseen because of its exemplary track record.  DeLille's blend shows off a perfectly ripe fruit aroma and a perfectly ripe flavor that tiptoes to the line but doesn't cross over.  Soft, generous and supple, it is a wine well suited to drinking now.

$41.99 per bottle

 

2013 L'Ecole No. 41 Apogee, Pepper Bridge Vineyard Red Wine, Walla Walla Valley, Washington

This wine is on my short list for best Bordeaux-inspired blend in our store.  Samantha Dugan was tasting next to me when we previewed this wine and the Francophile remarked, "Now this I want to put in my mouth!"  A terrific aroma, full in the mouth with some juiciness with flavors of cassis, it is a balanced wine with firm, drying tannins.  60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 14% Malbec and 5% Cabernet Franc.

$48.99 per bottle

 

2015 Quilceda Creek CVR Red Wine, Columbia Valley, Washington State

Arguably the most prestigious winery in Washington State, at least in recent judgings, Quilceda Creek makes deep, fleshy Cabernets of impeccable balance.  Its 2015 CVR blend, using 81% Cabernet Sauvignon, is a fairly big wine, tannic and firm, with balanced fruit in the foreground and background.  Impressive.

$67.99 per bottle

 

2012 Young Inglewood Right Bank Blend, St. Helena, Napa Valley

Taking its inspiration from Pomerol, this winery debuted in 2007 with gorgeous fruit taken from the Benchland alongside the Mayacamas mountains.  The nose has notes of herbs and milk chocolate, and the focused fruit comes through from start to finish. 

$71.99 per bottle

 

NV Opus One Overture Red Wine, Napa Valley

The legendary partnership of Robert Mondavi and Baron Phillipe Rothschild of the great Mouton-Rothschild chateau created more excitement in the wine industry before-or-since than any other event.  It, in essence, gave France's blessing to Napa Valley, elevating Opus One to mythic status in the world, and representing the finest American red wine to the world.  Until recently, the winery's Overture bottling, a multi-vintage blend of wines made for Opus One, but left out of the proportion, was sold only at the estate.  Since then a small amount has been offered to retail stores in small allocations.  Our allocation was sold out at our recent tasting, and by press time, it is unclear whether anymore will be available before fall.

$119.99 per bottle (perhaps sold out until the fall)

 

2014 Blackbird Contrarian Red Wine, Napa Valley

Blackbird vineyard's red wines are made by talented winemaker Aaron Jost.  Planted in 1997 in Napa Valley's Oak Knoll district south of Yountville, the debut vintage of Blackbird wine was 2003.  Usually Pomerol-inspired, Blackbird's wines have been very well received by the wine press and exacting consumers alike.  The Contrarian, as the name implies, goes against the dominant house style, and the 2014 blend contains 81% Cabernet Sauvignon.  The intense wine has Cabby flavors with typical cassis notes, narrowly focused, finishing with firm tannins.

$128.99 per bottle

 

2014 Continuum Red Wine, Napa Valley

 

It's hard to believe ten vintages are under Tim Mondavi's belt.  Conceived by Tim, sister Marsha and father Robert Mondavi as an estate-bottled wine (making wine from grapes they owned and controlled themselves), this project became reality when the Mondavis invested money from the sale of the Robert Mondavi winery to purchase the Cloud View vineyard on Prichard Hill and construct a winery.  With a blend of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet Franc, 15% Petit Verdot and 5% Merlot, the highly acclaimed 2014 is a big wine finishing with a graphite note and firm tannins.

$219.99 per bottle

 

2013 Joseph Phelps Insignia Red Wine, Napa Valley

Over the past four decades, fewer wines have achieved more critical acclaim than Joseph Phelps iconic Insignia blend.  And after sampling it recently, I still think it remains one of America's most impressive red wines, and I'm not alone.  Love him or hate him, Robert Parker awarded this wine 98 points.  We served this as a finale to our recent Bordeaux-Inspired Blends tasting.  This Cabernet-Sauvignon dominant blend offers a big mouthful of fruit, followed by bold tannins in the finish.  It is definitely a wine that makes one pay attention.

$229.99 per bottle

 

2012 Colgin IX Estate Red Wine, Napa Valley

Ann Colgin has been producing wine since 1992, and immediately achieved near cult-wine status.  As a result, The Wine Country had never been able to acquire even a bottle from the estate, until this vintage.  So we used our last two bottles for our recent Bordeaux-Inspired Blends tasting as a thank-you from us to our customers.  While one may argue that there is or is not 600 dollars worth of wine in the bottle, there was no doubt the singular, elegant wine offered something very special.  A little magic in the core of the wine.  Blessed grapes.  The real deal.

$599.99 per bottle  (Sold Out)

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