Quick question: What is the point of blending?
The tried and true “wine geek” response would usually go off into one or two directions. You can talk about the history of Bordeaux (and other European wine regions) where planting a variety of grapes that bud and ripen at different points was a type of insurance policy against the pratfalls of nature that varies from vintage to vintage. The more poetic direction will talk of an artist painting a picture with each grape variety being a different color on their palette. Instead of just dealing with one color (one grape variety), the winemaker seeks to paint a more vividly engaging portrait of a wine with more colors at his or her disposal.
Now let me ask you: What is a “Bordeaux blend”?
If you’re quick with Google and quicker with a cork screw then you are probably mentally rattling off in your head a list of red and white grape varieties that are typically used to make wine in Bordeaux.
It’s right but it’s also wrong.
One of my most eye-opening experience during my travels to Bordeaux was the realization of how far-reaching the concept of blending is in Bordeaux. It is so much more than just blending grape varieties. Let me give you the example of Chateau Haut-Bages-Liberal, a 5th growth estate in Pauillac. On the 30 hectares of the estate scattered around the villages of Bages and Pauillac, they grow just two grape varieties–Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. So the blend each year should be pretty simple right? Grab a few beakers and graduated cylinders and see which ratio of Cab to Merlot works the best.
You see much like the Burgundians, the Bordelais invest deeply into knowing each individual plot of soil–it’s strengths, weakness and quirks. This is knowledge that is acquired over decades, if not hundreds of years. For an estate like Ch. Haut-Bages-Liberal that has been around since the mid 18th century, this accumulation of knowledge and experience has led them to subdivide their vineyards into 42 different plots.
While we are on a steep learning curve here in New World wine regions like Washington and California, we have gotten to the point where we are also seeing different personalities emerge from different blocks. When identified, these blocks may be farmed and harvested differently than the rest of the vineyard. On wine labels, we see heralded blocks like Sheridan’s Block One Cabernet, Schweiger Vineyards’ Legacy Block, Rochioli West Block Pinot noir, etc.
But at most estates in Bordeaux, each and every one of those plots are treated as a “heralded block” and given its own unique attention. They will be fermented separately. Some in cement. Some in stainless steel. Some in big oak vats. Some in small oak barrels. Some plots will be split into a couple different types of vessels. In several estates I visited, I was taken back at how many custom made cement tanks I saw with odd (but precise) volume sizes like 21.6 hL, 23.9 hL, 58.2 hL, 61.9 hL, etc. It eventually dawned on me that each of these tanks were designed and made for a specific plot.
The plots are still kept separate even after fermentation when they are transferred to barrel with most estates using the product of 4 to 9 different coopers. Each barrel adds it own “coloring” to the palate–some add more creaminess, some add more spice, others heighten the attack of the wine up front while another barrel may push it more to the mid palate.
All this means is that when the time comes to make the final blend of the Grand Vin (and subsequent second and even 3rd wine) the winemaker is not dealing with a color palette of just “the five grapes of the Bordeaux blend” but rather a palette with a kaleidoscope of color from as many as a hundred (or more) different lots that have each taken their own unique path from vineyard to the bottle.
It is an art form in the most literal sense. While there are many outstanding New World producers of “Bordeaux-style” blends, I really have not come across a producer who takes the concept of blending to quite the degree of the Bordelais. It is so much more than just blending grape varieties. It truly is about expanding the palette to include not only more colors but more shades of those different colors.
It’s all part of the tricks of the trade that have seen the Bordelais dazzle the palates of wine drinkers for centuries.