Category Archives: Bordeaux

A Bordeaux palette

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.
By Danyghi - Own work, Public Domain,

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.

Not quite.

I'm sure the plot of Haut-Bages-Liberal that stands in the shadow of the tower of neighboring Chateau Latour gets LOTS of special attention

I’m sure the plot of Haut-Bages-Liberal that stands in the shadow of the tower of neighboring Chateau Latour gets LOTS of special attention


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.

At the Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classe estate of Fleur-Cardinale, they give each plot a name that captures the "personality" of that plot.

At the Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classe estate of Fleur-Cardinale, they give each plot a name that captures the “personality” of that plot.


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.

An assortment of the unique fermentation vessels used at various Bordeaux estates.

An assortment of the unique fermentation vessels used at various Bordeaux estates.


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.

The jilted wives club

Today an interesting thread caught my eye on Wine Berserkers titled Chateau Poujeaux is Dead to Me, Along with Other Recently Rollandized Estates. The whole thread is well worth a read, especially if you are a Bordeaux geek, and touches on topics like the differing roles of big name consultants at different estates. But the cliffs note version is: Chateau XYZ is no longer making wine in the style I previously enjoyed and this is a very, very bad thing Vs. Eh, it happens and some people like the new style.

That's what the cloud gets for heeding Michel Rolland's call to micro-oxygenate

That’s what the cloud gets for heeding Michel Rolland’s call to micro-oxygenate

There is some great back and forth from posters in the thread with Jeff Leve who runs, IMO, one of the best websites on earth for Bordeaux lovers at http://www.thewinecellarinsider.com/ (Read it, save it, bookmark it, love it). Jeff is very much on the “Change Happens” side of the argument and I will gladly share that boat with him, especially if he brings a bottle of the 2009 Cos d’Estournel that they kept talking about in the thread.

The strongest argument on the OP side (the “traditionalist” side, if you will) of the Beserker thread is that the somewhat sudden change in style for many houses contributes to a “walking minefield” for people whose palates were used to the more traditional style. When old favorites become new enemies, it can be quite jarring–especially if you’ve invested time and cash into cellaring something that ends up not being the style of wine you enjoy. That’s a fair cause to be annoyed over. But I can imagine it being even more jarring when you realize that the reason for this change is that your loyalty and faithful patronage of the estate (and that of people like you) simply wasn’t enough.

Basically you're the guy in the salmon colored tie on the left and the party has moved on. Everybody just forgot to text you.

Basically you’re the guy in the salmon colored tie on the left and the party has moved on. Everybody just forgot to text you.

The Chateau wanted more–more sales, more acclaim, more prestige, etc–or they wouldn’t have put up the enormous risk of changing their style. For whatever reason, when the decision makers and number crunchers at the estate looked at what the future held for them, they thought that what they had wasn’t enough and they acted on it. It is certainly not a sniffling investment to hire someone like Michel Rolland. Lettie Teague estimated in 2013 that Rolland’s retainer per client was between $100,000 to $250,000 a year. Then you add the potential vineyard investment that may include replanting, retrellising, more extensive labor, etc as well as winery equipment investments (micro-oxygenation isn’t free). Those investments will only be worth every penny if there are people who like this new style of wine. The upsetting news for the traditionalists is that there are.

For the traditionalist, they’re not just being dumped by their favorite estates. They’re being dumped and watching their ex lose weight, get in shape and start driving around in a fancy new sports car while trying to attract a hot, new Millennial to cozy up next to and whisper sweet en primeur scores into their ears. With that can you really blame the “traditionalists” for feeling jilted? When you take a step back, its not hard to see these long time Bordeaux lovers feeling a bit like Annie from The First Wives Club in this scene.

But the thing to remember is that today’s traditionalists aren’t really “The First Wives” of these Bordeaux estates. In fact, they aren’t even the second or third wives. The style of Bordeaux has been changing for a long time. The Bordeaux of Samuel Pepys was quite different from the Bordeaux of Thomas Jefferson or the Bordeaux of Alexis Lichine. As several commentators on the Berserkers thread noted, the famed 1982 vintage that many of today’s traditionalists hold so dear was once scoffed and derided by the traditionalists of that era as “too ripe” to ever produce classic wines. But here we are. With legendary 1982s being savored to the last drop, dwindling down to ever smaller numbers with lots of delicious (or not, YMMV) 2009/2010s vying to take their space in the hearts and cellars of Bordeaux fans.

Yes, you are Shelly. Yes, you are.

Yes, you are Shelly. Yes, you are.

If there is anything that the traditionalists can take solace in, its that history will repeat itself again and again. Change will happen once more. All the Bordeaux lovers of today who are lapping up the new, more ripe, lusher style of Bordeaux will eventually have their own “Jilted Wives” moment.

Because in the end, we’re all just Shellys.