Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are the dominant red grapes in Bordeaux, but there are also Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec and a tiny amount of Carménère grapes. Because of climatic conditions, not all the grapes ripen properly and at the same time. To make the best-possible wine, winemakers make wine from different grape varieties, then blend them together. Each individual wine has different characteristics and complements the other wines in the blend. The blend changes every year depending on the growing season, but Bordeaux wine is always a blend.
Merlot-dominated wine is richer, softer, rounder and plusher, with cherry, plum and chocolate aromas, while Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated wine is firmer, more structured and tannic, with aromas of blackcurrant, blackberry and liquorice. Contrary to popular belief, there is more Merlot planting (over 60%) than Cabernet Sauvignon (25%) in Bordeaux.
Bordeaux has over 7,000 producers making close to 75 million cases of wine every year, with 90% red Bordeaux blends (about 68 million cases). Over 25% of Bordeaux wine is sold at less than three euros per bottle, with the majority priced at between 3–15 euros per bottle. But it is those wines classed as first-growth chateaux, the likes of Lafite, Petrus and Lynch-Bages – which make up less than 3% of the entire Bordeaux production – that command all the press and attention. Unfortunately, because of this, the prices of a lot of average Bordeaux wines on the market are inflated.
As a matter of fact, the red Bordeaux blend is the most copied wine in the world and can be found in all New World wine regions including Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the US, Chile, Argentina and China. Although using the same grape varieties, blends made outside Bordeaux cannot be called Bordeaux wine. Most wineries either label a wine as a Bordeaux blend or list the grape varieties on the label. These New World regions are generally warmer than Bordeaux, so the wine is usually fruitier with smoother tannins and more approachable when young. Top-quality Bordeaux blends from the New World can age as well as Bordeaux-classed growths, but they only cost a fraction of the price. I recently tried a 27-year-old Meerlust Rubicon from South Africa, and it was incredible (available from winenthingshk.com).
White wine from Bordeaux is also a blend, with the dominant grape varieties being Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. Semillon gives the wine body with stone-fruit aromas, while Sauvignon Blanc complements it with freshness and citrus characteristics. The wine develops a spiced honey bouquet when aged. However, white wine contributes to less than 10% of the total wine production in Bordeaux. Again, this blend is common amongst New World wine producers.
The other great wine from Bordeaux is sweet wine made from noble rot, or botrytis, grapes. The appellations producing sweet wine are found along the Garonne river, where the morning mist encourages the growth of fungus on the berries. The afternoon sun then dries the berries, making them shrivelled and concentrating their flavour. If there is no afternoon sun, the berries turn to grey rot and have a mouldy taste. Making sweet wine is labour intensive. Noble rot berries are only picked when they are ready. Pickers often have to go through the vineyards two or three times before picking all the berries, so noble sweet wine is expensive with limited production. Other countries that are also famous for botrytis sweet wine are Germany, Austria and Hungary.
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