sunday schoolOriginally from Bordeaux. . .

May 2, 2021by Corners Crew

Join us each Sunday for an ongoing series of articles exploring the world of wine.  

We’ve previously met the most famous grape from Bordeaux. Now get to know four other international grapes originally from this famous region.

Over the next few weeks, we will be taking a look at four international grapes that originated in, or are most associated with, the French region of Bordeaux — namely sauvignon blanc, merlot, cabernet Franc, and malbec.  Along with cabernet sauvignon (discussed in previous articles), these grapes are the Bordeaux grapes that we are most likely to encounter as single varietal wines (or at least as major proportions of a blend).  They are also the Bordeaux grapes that have found the greatest success in areas outside of their place of origin.

The region of Bordeaux expands in a radius of approximately 100 km from the city of the same name.  The name Bordeaux means “bordered/bound by the waters” — and the region is easily divided by its primary rivers, the Gironde (stretching north-northwest from the city and emptying into the Atlantic Ocean) and its two tributaries, the Garonne (flowing from the southeast into the Gironde) and the Dordogne (flowing from the east into the Gironde just north of the city.).  Facing the direction of the flow of the Gironde into the Atlantic, the area on the left is known as the left-bank.  The left-bank is planted largely to cabernet sauvignon (although other red grapes and several white grapes are planted there as well).  The left bank features gravelly, well draining soil in which cabernet sauvignon grows best, while the opposite side of the river (the right-bank), has heavier, water-retaining clay soil to which merlot is better suited.  The area between the Girone and the Dodogne is known as “Entre-Deux-Mers” (between two waters) and is planted mostly to white grapes.  Most Bordeaux vineyards, regardless of their location, are planted with several varietals as a way to “hedge bets” in the event that one varietal suffers during the growing season.   As such, Bordeaux wines (both red and white) are almost always a blend of at least two (sometimes more) varietals of grapes (but always either white or red grapes, never both).  Blending is both the natural extension of co-planting and is a way to use the strengths and characteristics of each varietal to make a more complex, complete and integrated wine.  In the articles to follow, we will discuss the red grapes merlot, cabernet Franc, and malbec.  These three red varietals are often bottled as single varietal wines outside of Bordeaux (and often appear as part of blends in many wine growing regions).  While single varietal bottlings of petit verdot do exist, they are few and far between (but generally VERY enjoyable).

White wines from Bordeaux are usually a blend of at least two of the following grapes:  sauvignon blanc, sémillon, muscadelle (NO relation to muscat or muscadine), and (to a lesser degree) ugni blanc and/or colombard).  In the articles to follow, we will discuss only the first of these varietals, as the consumer is highly unlikely to encounter any of the others as a single varietal.

Since we have discussed cabernet sauvignon in a previous article, we’ll start our exploration of these “originally from Bordeaux” grapes with merlot.  I know some of you are rolling your eyes.  Let’s face it, merlot has a bad reputation — a bad reputation started 17 years ago (quite undeservedly) with the (unlikely) hit film Sideways and the character Miles’ famous, but unfortunate, line, “I’m not drinking any #(@%!^) merlot!”  The joke that is lost on most viewers is that Miles’ favorite wine is (depending on whether you reference the novel or the film), either exclusively or predominantly merlot.  In the novel, Miles’ favorite wine is the extremely expensive (to the tune of several thousands of dollars a bottle) right bank Bordeaux, Château Petrus (which is 100% merlot).  In the film, Mile’s favorite wine is another right bank wine, Château Cheval Blanc (still rather costly, but not to the same degree as Château Petrus), which is predominantly cabernet Franc (about 57%) and merlot (about 40%).  If Sideways has in any way informed any negative perception of merlot, I strongly encourage you to set that ill-advised notion aside and become familiar with this very likeable grape.  In general, merlot displays:

  • Fruit notes of cherry (black and red), plum (black and red), currant, and blackberry
  • Herbal notes of mint and eucalyptus and (in European wines) anise or tobacco
  • Vegetal notes of bell pepper (caused by a group of compounds called pyrazines) and (in European wines) olive and/or fennel
  • Notes of dark chocolate
  • Spice notes of clove
  • Oak influenced notes of baking spices (especially vanilla), coffee, and cedar from French oak barrels, and baking spices (especially vanilla), coconut, and dill from American oak barrels

Considering the general components of wine (alcohol, sugar, acid, and tannin (the component in oversteeped tea that cause the inside of your mouth to feel rough and dry)), merlot tends to be:

  • Moderate to high in alcohol
  • Dry, meaning that is has little residual sugar (sugar remaining after fermentation), although fruit character may certainly be present
  • Moderate to slightly high in acidity
  • Moderate to high in tannin.  

The third major component of most red Bordeaux is likely to be cabernet Franc, one of the parent grapes of cabernet sauvignon.  One of my favorite grapes, cabernet Franc generally displays:

  • Fruit notes of raspberry, current, cranberry, and blackberry
  • Herbal notes of garden herbs, grass, and tea
  • Vegetal notes of bell/chipotle pepper, beets, or arugula
  • Spice notes of pepper(s)
  • Earthy notes of soil, compost, stone, and graphite
  • Notes of leather, chocolate, and coffee
  • Oak influenced notes are rare, as most traditional styles use little or neutral oak

Considering the general components of wine (alcohol, sugar, acid, and tannin), cabernet Franc tends to be:

  • Moderate to high in alcohol
  • Dry, meaning that is has little residual sugar (sugar remaining after fermentation), although fruit character may certainly be present
  • Moderate to slightly high in acidity
  • Moderate to high in tannin.

Now known more as an Argentine grape than as a Bordeaux grape, malbec is the last of the red Bordeaux grapes that we will cover in this series of articles.  In truth, malbec is most likely from the area southwest of Bordeaux (particularly the area known as Cahors, where the grape is usually bottled as a single varietal wine), but malbec is very often a small part of Bordeaux red blends.  The climate of Argentina, however, has proven far more suitable than Bordeaux for producing malbec worthy of vinifying as a single varietal.  In general, malbec displays:

  • Fruit notes of blackberry, cherry, plum, current, raisins, blueberry, and raspberry
  • Herbal notes of mint and tobacco
  • Spice notes of licorice and black pepper
  • Earthy notes of soil and graphite
  • Notes of smoke, dark chocolate, and coffee
  • Oak influenced notes of baking spices (especially vanilla), smoke, toast, or chocolate from French oak barrels, and baking spices (especially vanilla), coconut, and dill from American oak barrels

Considering the general components of wine (alcohol, sugar, acid, and tannin), malbec tends to be:

  • Moderate to high in alcohol
  • Dry, meaning that is has little residual sugar (sugar remaining after fermentation), although fruit character may certainly be present
  • Moderate to slightly high in acidity
  • Moderate to slightly high in tannin.

Among the five white grapes grown in Bordeaux, there is only one that you are likely to encounter as a single varietal wine — sauvignon blanc.  This grape (along with the aforementioned cabernet Franc) is the other parent grape of cabernet sauvignon.  In Bordeaux, sauvignon blanc is almost always a part of a blend — but in other parts of the world (and indeed, other parts of France, you are more likely to encounter sauvignon blanc as a single varietal, unblended wine.  In general, sauvignon blanc displays:

  • Fruit notes of grapefruit, lemon, lime, gooseberry, fig, melon, apple, and pear along with (in California and New Zealand iterations) tropical fruit like kiwi, pineapple, mango, and passion fruit
  • Herbal notes of lemongrass, cilantro, and (especially in California and New Zealand iterations) tarragon
  • Vegetal notes of bell pepper, and (sometimes in California and New Zealand iterations) jalapeño, asparagus, or green bean
  • Earthy notes of stone and (in European bottlings) chalk, mushroom, or forest floor
  • Notes of (especially when blended with sémillon) lanolin, wax, and onion 
  • Oak influenced notes of baking spices (especially vanilla), smoke, toast, or hazelnut

Considering the general components of wine (alcohol, sugar, acid, and tannin), sauvignon blanc tends to be:

  • Moderate to high in alcohol
  • Dry, meaning that is has little residual sugar (sugar remaining after fermentation), although fruit character may certainly be present
  • Moderate to high in acidity
  • Usually without phenolic bitterness (the white wine expression of tannin), although a slight hint of bitterness/tannin may be present if the wine was fermented or aged in oak barrels.

I’m In the next few weeks, we will explore some of the primary growing regions for each of these grapes “originally from Bordeaux.” We will begin each week’s journey in Bordeaux, but we will also explore areas as close to this place of origin as the neighboring Loire Valley and Cahors, as well as areas as far flung as California, Washington state, South America, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand (and a few spots in between). Until then, remember that there is a world full of great wine for us to explore.


To view previous articles in this series, please visit https://www.cornersfinewineandspirits.com/category/sunday-school/.

by Corners Crew

Corners Fine Wine & Spirits is the first and only Fine Wine & Spirits store located in Peachtree Corners, GA.