Editor’s note: Last month, our intrepid wine correspondent Renee Wilmeth made her way through much of Bordeaux, tasting and observing. Here, at long last, is her dispatch.
Dateline: Bordeaux – Harvest is in full swing in Saint Emilion despite the 100F degree heat on Monday, September 12. Winemakers don’t seem too worried. It’s been a long hot summer and one more day won’t make a difference. With most of the Merlot harvested on the right bank, it may even speed up the ripening for the Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Most chateaux expect they’ll pick cab franc next week.
The region of Bordeaux can be perceived as tradition-bound. One imagines these classic wines have been made in the same way for hundreds of years, and that only winemakers who focus on classical techniques can bring forth the best from the vines. But even with recent vintage challenges, if there’s one thing Bordeaux represents, it’s that change is constant. And can also be very good.
Tradition bound, sure—but these winemakers aren’t afraid to experiment. Trying new techniques provides ample information and ideas for the next vintage. Unlike popular perception of these tried and true Bordelaise vignerons, today’s winemakers are not afraid of change.
Bordeaux wines, as wine lovers will know, are blends. Depending on the right bank or left bank, the wines may be Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon dominated with Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, or even a little Malbec added. The blend depends on the vintage, the grapes, the terroir of the chateau, and advice from oenologists. (It’s common in Bordeaux for many chateaus to use winemaking consultants. The good ones are in high demand.)
Once grapes are picked and make their way through the fermentation process, some producers create a blend, then put everything in barrels. Increasingly, they’re also adding this wine to large amphoras and concrete “eggs,” large or small concrete tanks narrow at the top and large at the bottom. Some also use large wooden foudres. Wine aged in the eggs and amphora takes on different characteristics than the barrel aged wines, so wines from each vessel bring something different to the party when it comes to creating the final blends.
Wine makers also can blend small percentages of previous vintages, and make adjustments with blends of grapes for the weather, yield, ripeness, acid, and alcohol. Blends from the same producer can vary wildly year by year. Percentages of merlot, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon may change with additions of petit verdot or even malbec. At least one right bank producer we spoke to is planning on adding a few rows of cabernet sauvignon for blending.
With all of these options, one can see how Bordeaux winemakers have a lot of latitude when it comes to experiments, but they say they feel the same pressure when it comes to making decisions. Picking, fermentation, blending, aging, and blending again all represent critical decisions on the process and represent the winemakers style. Market forces also play a factor. Some houses will always make long-aging, traditional wines while others want to embrace a younger market, one who likes robust wines and doesn’t want to wait 10 years to enjoy a bottle. Exploring that range gives you a sense of how large this region truly is—and the sheer amount of wine they produce from high end classics to AOC Bordeaux.
At the very least, whether in a difficult vintage or an easy one, winemakers have to embrace the enduring lesson of Bordeaux. In the words of one winemaker “It’s not a mistake, it’s an evolution.” And with the options open to these winemakers for making delicious and enduring wines, one can see the art of winemaking front and center.
Some experts believe the classification system can be a bit of a game and others have removed themselves from the system altogether. However, based on the opportunities for everything from price increases to marketing, for many chateaux, the classification system can yield benefits.
Of course, the big news was the announcement of the every-ten-year update to the Saint-Emilion classifications and the bump for Chateau-Figeac there to Premier Grand Cru Classe A, joining Chateau Pavie atop the classification system for the next decade.