Here in Napa, many wines are described as Bordeaux blends without any real discussion of what that means or how the wines of Napa are in fact very different from those of Bordeaux. Most red Bordeaux wines are Merlot-based, yet those of Napa are dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon. Napa wines increasingly contain Malbec in the blend, even though it's rarely used in Bordeaux nowadays. In addition, Napa's Mediterranean climate is very different from Bordeaux's wet maritime conditions, meaning that Napa's and Bordeaux's wines often don't have that much in common. All of which leads me to ask, What is a Bordeaux blend exactly and why use that term?
climate contingency plans
Bordeaux is as far north in France as Cabernet Sauvignon will reliably ripen (although it is planted, mainly for rosés, in the cool Loire). For this reason, the earlier-ripening Merlot is also planted as a back-up if Cabernet doesn't successfully ripen. In contrast, Merlot can be subject to spring frosts which will ruin the crop - here, the later-budding Cabernet can act as a back-up. These climate contingency plans are the fundamental reason that all Bordeaux reds are blends. On top of this, the characteristics of the two grapes naturally balance each other out, making them great blending partners. In warmer, more temperate climates such as Napa, blending is done for style and taste rather than through necessity, whereas in Coonawarra in Australia, they just go for straight Cabernet, impossible in Bordeaux.
left bank vs right bank
This may suggest that all Bordeaux is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which is not the case. The only area of Bordeaux where Cabernet dominates is the Left Bank - short-hand for the Médoc and Graves regions which are planted to 70% Cabernet Sauvignon. Here, the soils are gravelly, retaining heat during the day that's released in the evening to help continue the ripening. Elsewhere in Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon simply won't ripen, which is why Merlot is such an important grape for both simple and complex wines. The most famous Merlot wines are found on the Right Bank in the villages of St-Emilion and Pomerol, where they are often blended with Cabernet Franc. The great Cabernet-based and Merlot-based wines of Bordeaux can sometimes be hard to tell apart, but they are very different: Cabernet-based wines are more aggressively tannic, while Merlot-based wines are softer and fruitier.
plantings: 28,000ha - 25% of Bordeaux's black grapes
The reason the term Bordeaux blend often refers to a Cabernet-based wine is because the historically great Bordeaux wines are those of the Left Bank. These wines are concentrated in the Haut-Médoc, in the villages of St-Estèphe, Paulliac, St-Julien, and Margaux, as well as Pessac-Léognan in Graves. It's still very rare to see a wine with more than 80% Cabernet in the blend, and it's often a lot less than that - and this is one reason why the wines of the Left Bank are quite different from their Cabernet-heavy New World counterparts.
plantings: 69,000ha - 62% of Bordeaux's black grapes
Merlot is generally an easier grape to grow than Cabernet Sauvignon because it ripens earlier, but that also makes it a more difficult grape to make great wine out of. Merlot dominates plantings in the undistinguished parts of Bordeaux that produce entry-level wine, but it's also the most important grape in mid-level regions such as the recently-created Côtes de Bordeaux - a group of appellations producing good, affordable red wine. And then it's the base for the wines of St-Emilion and Pomerol, some of the greatest and most expensive wines of the world.
Merlot has been subject to much ridicule since the release of Sideways, a movie in which one of the characters refuses to drink Merlot (in his words, "I'm not drinking any fucking Merlot.") This was in response to the cheap Merlot that was being produced in California and Washington in the 1990s. Though many viewers didn't quite get the joke, the movie ends with him drinking his favourite ever wine, Cheval Blanc - an iconic St-Emilion wine that's a Cabernet Franc-Merlot blend.
plantings: 13,000ha - 12% of Bordeaux's black grapes
Cabernet Franc is the great unsung hero of Bordeaux, playing a small but significant part in both Left Bank and Right Bank wines, not least as it's the parent grape of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Carmenère.
Until the 1960s, it was planted in Bordeaux as much as Cabernet Sauvignon, because, like Merlot, it's easier to ripen and it can also survive rainy weather during harvest. Like its off-spring Cabernet Sauvignon, it can be quite tannic, but it has distinctive flavours of red fruits and in cooler vintages green bell peppers, and it also contributes acidity to a blend. It's fallen from favour because Cabernet Sauvignon replaced the white vines ripped up in Bordeaux in the 1960s and has since taken over the world, but a Bordeaux wine without Cabernet Franc is like a home without books.
Bordeaux plantings: 479ha
Petit Verdot is planted to provide backbone and structure in difficult years. It's an incredibly tannic, deep-coloured wine and it can be very difficult to drink on its own. In Bordeaux, it's most complex in the best years, but paradoxically it's not needed in those years because other grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon already have plenty of richness and structure. There's an unwritten rule in Bordeaux that a wine should have no more than 10% of Petit Verdot. This is a rule that's generally followed in the warmer New World regions that use the grape, even though adding its power to an already big wine isn't really necessary.
Bordeaux plantings: 974ha
Malbec originates from south-west France, where it is the main variety for the Cahors region and is known as Auxerrois or Côt. It was introduced in the eighteenth century to the Right Bank by Château de Pressac (still an important St-Emilion producer and one of the few to plant Malbec and Carmenère) and to the Left Bank by Sieur Malbek, where the grape's international name comes from. It was much planted, but there were several problems: the wines it produced weren't as good as Merlot, which overtook Malbec in plantings, and Malbec is susceptible to many diseases as well as spring frost. In 1956, that frost killed off many of Bordeaux's Malbec vines, and, as Malbec plantings were already in retreat, few bothered to replant. It's now mainly grown in Blaye and Bourg, both of which form part of the Côtes de Bordeaux.
After its near devastation in south-west France, Malbec has become an extremely popular black grape due to its success in Argentina where it was introduced by French immigrants in the mid-nineteenth century. In warmer climates, the grape, which ripens late, does not struggle like it does in Bordeaux. Because of this, Malbec is much more likely to be found in a New World Bordeaux blend than a wine from Bordeaux.
Bordeaux plantings: 4ha
No one cared about Carmenère until the 1990s when it was discovered that a lot of the Merlot being produced in Chile was in actual fact the old and mostly-forgotten Bordeaux variety Carmenère - and it's still unclear whether many of the plantings in Chile are Merlot or Carmenère. Chilean producers understandably want to make Carmenère their national grape, given there's so little planted elsewhere in the world. However, I have yet to try an interesting wine made from Carmenère, which in my experience has simple, ripe blackcurrant aromas.
best regions for Bordeaux blends
In Bordeaux itself, the best value Cabernet-based wines can be found in Moulis and Listrac, which border the Haut-Médoc. Likewise, the satellite regions of St-Emilion produce good, affordable Merlot-based wines.
Many regions around the world have their own take on Bordeaux. In the US, Washington marries the ripe fruits of the New World with the tannins and acidity of the Old - the Red Mountain AVA is particularly good for both Cabernet and Merlot based wines. Napa is more fruit forward, bigger and bolder, and more Cabernet. In South Africa, the best wines are from Stellenbosch and they are complex Cabernet-led blends. In Australia, the ocean influence on Margaret River in Western Australia, together with the region's gravel soils, make the wines similar to those of Bordeaux - the blends are likely to be Cabernet led. Finally, New Zealand's Gimlett Gravels, whose name gives a clue to the soils found there, produces some of the best-value, quality Merlot-based blends. Whether based around Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, climate and winemaking make Bordeaux blends very different from one another across the world.