Monday, 24 October 2016


Nuits-St-Georges is one of Burgundy's most famous appellations, wine having been made from the iconic St-Georges vineyard for over a thousand years. The Côtes de Nuits, a series of villages encompassing some of the great Pinot Noir vineyards of Burgundy, takes its name from the town. Originally simply called Nuits, the town expanded its name to Nuits-St-Georges in 1892, adding its most renowned vineyard to its name. The wines are known for being bigger, bolder, fruitier, and more tannic than the elegant, nuanced wines of nearby Gevrey-Chambertin, Chambolle-Musigny, and Vosne-Romanée. A tasting of six wines from Nuits-St-Georges gave the lie to that stereotype, showcasing a range of styles that depend, as is so often the case in Burgundy, on site as well as winemaker.

no Grands Crus

Despite its rich history, Nuits-St-Georges has no Grand Cru vineyards. Instead, the best vineyards are classed as Premier Cru, reportedly because of the modesty of the appellation's leading winemaker, Henri Gouges, when it was created in 1936. It doesn't really matter that there are no Grands Crus - the renown and quality of Nuits-St-Georges speak for themselves - but it's still surprising that the best vineyards don't receive that official acclaim.

The appellation covers Nuits-St-Georges and the smaller village of Prémaux-Prissey to the south. The town of Nuits-St-Georges is at the base of a valley formed by the river Meuzin. To the north of the town, the vineyards are high - 300m and more - with soils full of pebbles as well as limestone and a little clay. These vineyards border Vosne-Romanée, and the wines are floral, spicy, and elegant. It's these that perhaps counter most the reputation of Nuits-St-Georges as being big and fruity. To the south of the town, the soils gradually become less stony, deeper with more clay, and the wines get denser and more tannic.

elephants, oak, planets, and famous writers

I couldn't help be amused by the continued comparisons of Thibault Liger-Belair, a local winemaker, to help us understand the appellation. He first likened the wines to an elephant, partly because of the memories they hold. Taking it further, he described the south part of the appellation as being like an African elephant, big and bold, with the north more like an Indian elephant, round and gentle. He then went on to describe the wines as like an oak tree, because of their robustness but also because they require oak-ageing to give them structure and ageability. He didn't stop there. If Nuits-St-Georges were a planet, it would be the moon (sic), a comparison made I think solely because there is a crater there named after the St-Georges vineyard. There was still another comparison to be made, as he wanted to compare Nuits-St-Georges to two famous French writers: Rabelais, because of the b‪on vivant style of the wines, and Molière, for their more philosophical qualities. As leftfield as his comparisons were, they did enlighten the differences between this varied appellation.

the wines

The tasting covered two vintages: 2013, described as fruity with high acidity and dry tannins, and 2014, which is rounder with softer tannins. It also covered wines from the northern part of the appellation, and three from the southern part, finishing with a wine from the St-Georges vineyard, which should clearly be a Grand Cru.

Domaine Phillipe Gavignet Les Argillats 2014

Situated in the northern part of the appellation a little higher than most of the surrounding Premier Cru vineyards, the Les Argillats vineyard takes its name from argile, meaning clay. It's 340m high, with the same pebble, limestone topsoils as the neighbouring vineyards. It proves that a Burgundy vineyard does not need to be a Premier Cru, let alone Grand Cru, to be high quality. It was smoky and oaky (with 15-16mths oak ageing), with ripe strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries. Pricy at $65. ✪✪✪✪✪

Domaine Frédéric Magnien Les Damodes Premier Cru 2013

From the highest Premier Cru and from the 2013 vintage, this wine had firm, dry, slightly astringent tannins, but with a refreshing high acidity. Although not as ripe as the previous wine, there were still clear fruit aromas of strawberries, plums, and blackcurrants, with some spice, as well as stone and steel texture. Not as fruity as the the first wine, but a little more complex, and even pricier ($90). ✪✪✪✪✪

Domaine Faiveley Aux Claignots Premier Cru 2014

This was an excellent wine, ultra-modern, with 60% new oak which I found a little too much. That oak dominated with smoke, cedar, vanilla, liquorice, and roasted almond aromas. It was intense, concentrated, and ripe, with raspberries, blackcurrants, and blackberries. If the oak had been more restrained, this would have been a truly extraordinary wine ($110). ✪✪✪✪✪

Maison Joseph Drouhin Les Procès Premier Cru 2013

With this wine, we moved towards the southern part of the appellation. As a result, the tannins were more drying and gripping, but the wine was still floral, with dried roses. There was also an intense nuttiness, with walnuts and hazelnuts (the name Nuits may come from noyer, French for walnut). The wine was made through whole-bunch fermentation, which may have added to its intense tannic structure. A very interesting wine with some longevity ($110-115; N/A in USA). ✪✪✪✪✪

Domaine des Perdrix Aux Perdris Premier Cru 2013

This was the only wine we tasted from the small village Prémaux-Prissey, and it was much bigger, blacker, and bolder. It was a voluptuous, ripe wine, but with a sharp acidity. The difference between this and the wines from the northern part of the appellation was marked. Perdrix means partidge in French, so naturally the label had a drawing of the bird. ✪✪✪✪✪ (€55)

Maison Chanzy Les Saint-Georges Premier Cru 2014

Although the other wines were all of a very high quality, this was easily the highlight of the tasting, combining the best of the different parts of the appellation. Winemaking, though, was also key: what I particularly loved about this wine was that it spent just ten months in oak, of which only 10% was new. It was ripe yet restrained, fruity but spicy and oaky, with a layered, textured mouthfeel. ✪✪✪✪✪✪ (€79)

The overall conclusion from this tasting is that Nuits-St-Georges is not an easy appellation to pin down. There are truly great vineyards from which the best producers make amazing wine - it's definitely an appellation the consumer needs to understand to make the most deserving purchases. To underscore that observation, the wines are expensive: do some research before buying to get the best value and quality.



Sunday, 16 October 2016

WSET Educator Top-Up Course

I just passed what I hope is the last ever exam I have to endure. Last November, I took the WSET Educator course, an intensive four-day assessment gearing me and my fellow students to becoming WSET Certified Educators. It was a course that shed a lot of light on what the WSET expect from their students, as well as educators, and definitely helped make me a better teacher.

As I still had one Diploma exam to take at the time, I wasn't able to complete the course fully. Last week, I spent a morning in San Francisco with two recent Diploma graduates, coincidentally both from Canada. Our mission was to prove that we were able to teach WSET Level 3, both the theory and the tasting, a mission complicated by the fact that Level 3 is quite different from what it used to be.

teaching the new Level 3

As I've previously written, the WSET have overhauled the Level 3 course and exam. I think for the better - the teaching is more interactive, and both theory and tasting are designed to get students really thinking about why a wine tastes like it does. However, for those educators long used to the old Level 3 the change has been difficult.

My fellow educators and I were asked to prepare a Level 3 class (in my case, Grenache-based wines) with a powerpoint presentation and session plan, just as we'd done last year for Level 2. Luckily for me, I have a habit of procastinating. Just at the point that I was about to knuckle down and prepare the class, I received a panicked email from Karen Douglas, WSET's Director of Education, asking me to stop making the powerpoint and session plan; instead, she wanted me to use a presentation and session plan (now on the white wines of Alsace) that she had prepared. The reason for this was that she had discovered that educators preparing for the course had found it difficult to adapt their methods to the new level, so Karen wanted to help us learn without having to build a class from scratch. This shows the difficulty of change, given that the WSET had spent several years developing the new course, but also how necessary it is for them to demonstrate why that change is worthwhile.

It was certainly useful to pick her brain about the WSET's approach to the new level, without having to worry that my presentation met that approach. Besides the more interactive teaching methods, the biggest change is in the revised tasting methodology. Aromas are now classified as primary, secondary, and tertiary to help students demonstrate where aromas in a wine come from - the grape, the production methods, or bottle ageing. I learnt that students do not have to write the terms primary, secondary, or tertiary aromas in their tasting notes, but they have to recognise them: if a wine, for instance, has tertiary aromas, then the student is expected to write examples of those aromas otherwise they'll lose points.

Related to this, I asked what to do about wines that had primary aromas of nuts (for instance, Rhône whites or Verdicchio) rather than tertiary aromas from oxidation (for example, sherry), which is the only place nuts are mentioned in the revised Systematic Approach to Tasting. The answer is that we, as educators, need to teach students how to understand where aromas come from, which is why being able to explain the difference between primary, secondary, and tertiary aromas is so important. That understanding enables students then to expand on the SAT to use their own descriptors, where appropriate. This underscores something that it's easy to forget: that tasting a wine is a personal experience, based on one's own knowledge and ability to interpret the qualities of a wine.

the old and new WSET lexicon


My theory presentation on the white wines of Alsace went extremely well, but for the tasting (on Viña Ardanza Reserva 2007) I was guilty of "mediumitis," ironic given that I am always pushing my students to be bold in the analysis of a wine in describing the acidity, tannins, or flavour intensity as high rather than medium plus. When teaching students, I am in a position of authority which allows me to push them beyond their received thinking. It's different, however, when in the presence of fellow Diploma graduates, the WSET Director of education, and an MW: I became much more cautious in describing the wine I'd been assigned for the tasting.

Both myself and my new Canadian friends were afterwards given a very useful lesson on what exactly low, medium-, medium, medium+, and pronounced mean to the WSET. Either a wine, for example, has low, medium, or high acidity, which is what Level 2 students are taught. At Level 3, the gradients medium- and medium+ are introduced. These are not alternatives to low or high, but variations on medium. So when tasting a wine, the assessment should be: are the acidity, tannins, or the flavour intensity of a wine low, medium, or high? If it's medium, only then do medium- or medium+ come into play.

The most important aspect to remember is that there is a spectrum within those gradients. In describing a wine as having high tannins, it does not have to be the most tannic wine you've ever tasted (like a Barolo): it simply has to have high tannins. Likewise, a wine with high acidity does not have to be a Riesling: it simply has to have high acidity. Failing to appreciate the structure of a wine just because it isn't as extreme as others previously tasted is a fault that students at both Level 3 and Diploma are guilty of, and frustratingly I was too in the assessment. But it's not something I'll be guilty of again.

how to use the WSET Systematic Approach to Tasting

So I am now almost a WSET Certified Educator. I just have to complete an online course on assessing Level 3 tasting notes, and then I'm done. As the WSET is consistently assessing its own courses in an increasingly competitive wine education environment, I'm excited to see where teaching the WSET takes me. But, I swear, no more exams, ever.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Colorado Drinking

Last weekend saw me celebrate my fortieth birthday and, coincidentally, attend a wedding in Golden, Colorado, a small, very American town outside Denver. My wife and I of course had to explore the burgeoning drinks scene, focusing mainly on Boulder, a well-to-do town at the foot of the Rockies and just under an hour's drive from Denver airport. With Colorado having around 250 breweries, both big (including Coor's) and small, the state is best known for its craft brewing scene. There are also 80 distilleries - up from nine a decade ago - and, perhaps most surprisingly, 150 wineries, meaning that any visitor to Colorado will not go thirsty.


Straight from the airport, we drove to the Prost brewery just outside downtown Denver. As the name suggests (prost means cheers in German), the beers follow German styles and we were lucky enough to arrive in the middle of the brewpub's Oktoberfest, with staff dressed in Lederhosen. There are plenty of choices of regular beers on tap, but we chose a Märzen straight from the keg and served in one-litre steins. This is a beer traditionally made in March (which is what Märzen means in German) with plenty of hops so that it could be served in October after the hot summer months when it was difficult to make good beer. The beer was excellent, malty and lightly hoppy, refreshing and very drinkable at under 6% ABV (✪✪✪✪✪). Even better, the one-litre stein was just $5 - a marked contrast to California where less than half a litre of an IPA is $7. The pub doesn't serve food, but just as we were finishing our first stein a food truck pulled up, serving weighty sandwiches - a different food truck is outside the pub daily.

In the evening, after the wedding we stopped off for a cheeky beer near our AirBnB in downtown Golden. Mountain Toad is a young brewery (again served daily with a food truck), with a vibrant atmosphere. We were a little tipsy by this stage, so I have no idea what the beer we drank was called - but it was very good!


On Sunday morning, we drove half an hour to Boulder to visit J&L Distilling, which has been going for three and a half years, producing 600 cases a year of vodka, gin, and a liqueur. This was quite an experience. Owner and distiller Seth Johnson is something of a mad scientist, having trained and worked as a physicist before turning his distilling hobby into a career. He's built his own column still, with wires all over the place connecting the still to his computer which can send him text messages when he's not there. This shows his dedication to detail, which runs through every aspect of his business. Unusually, the vodka is made from molasses, which he has shipped from Louisiana, as he feels that they give a creamier, weightier mouthfeel. He also puts the vodka through a high level of rectification to take away the characteristic bite that vodka has. The result is one of the best vodkas I've tried; reminiscent of a rhum agricole, the SNO vodka ($32; ✪✪✪✪✪✪) has a subtle green, underripe banana nose, and that creaminess on the palate balances the alcohol. Johnson also makes a gin with a number of botanicals, placed in separate, layered trays at the bottom of the still, to create an intensely flavoured but very nuanced spirit (also called SNO; $36; ✪✪✪✪✪). FYR ($35; ✪✪✪✪) is a liqueur also based on the vodka, made with a range of herbs and spices, dominated by cinnamon. It's sweet, rich (at 50% ABV), with cinnamon, cloves, and herbal aromas. It's certainly a winter drink, well suited to Colorado's cold, snowy winters.

We also visited another Boulder distillery, Vapor, which is a larger operation. They've been going for ten years (they used to be called Roundhouse but changed the name for legal reasons), building their reputation on gin. They make two gins from about ten botanicals - Rhok ($35-45; ✪✪✪✪) is an unaged gin, a little too sweet for me with not enough juniper, while Ginskey ($50-70; ✪✪✪✪) is a barrel-aged gin which as the name suggests tastes like a whiskey. They've recently expanded to whiskey-making, and are even going to make a single-malt whisky from a huge copper still they've bought from Scotland (it took three and a half years to make, showing the investment that's going into this distillery). Their new Bourbon is good, though a little hot and obvious (✪✪✪).

Both distilleries have tasting rooms where guests can sample the spirits and also drink cocktails, which I think is a great idea. At J&L, we tasted their most popular cocktail, based on the gin infused with beets for a month and it was delicious and tasty. Even better was the take on a mojito, made with the vodka instead of a rum (a natural substitution given the vodka's made from molasses) and basil instead of mint. This was wonderfully refreshing and the basil integrated with the vodka very well. At Vapor, we tried the gin mint gimlet, which was very nice and beautifully presented.


We didn't go to Colorado intending to taste wine, but on the recommendation of Seth at J&L we visited Settembre, a winery also based in Boulder. Colorado's climate makes grape growing difficult, with snowstorms often arriving just as the vines are budding. But the high altitude does lead to a naturally long growing season, which means that there is some potential for the state's wines. The main AVA is Western Slopes, which is 1,700m high, leading to cool nights and good air circulation.
sweet wines still dominate young wine-making states

Settembre is a winery founded ten years ago by former electrical engineer and UC Davis-trained Blake Eliasson, and with small production he is determined to make the most out of Colorado's vineyards. What I particularly liked about the wines we tasted was their age - the wines from the winery's first vintage, 2009, were drinking particularly well. Chardonnay, Riesling, Sangiovese, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon are all made, with a rosé from Cabernet Franc too. The Cabernet Sauvignons we tasted from the 2011 and 2012 vintages were far too green and underripe, suggesting that those cool nights make it difficult to get Cabernet fully ripe. The other wines were uniformly excellent though. The 2011 Chardonnay ($27; ✪✪✪✪✪) had tropical fruits, cinnamon, and a very refreshing acidity given the wine was five years old. The 2011 Sangiovese ($30; ✪✪✪✪) was also still very alive, with smoke, red fruits, spices, and firm tannins, although the 15% ABV was noticeable (the 2010 Sangiovese, which we didn't taste, is 16%!). Also noteworthy was the 2010 Reserve Syrah ($50; ✪✪✪✪), which was juicy, fruity, and spicy, with a balanced, tannic structure.

All the wines were marked with high acidity, making the whites refreshing and the reds ageworthy. Those reds also had firm, gripping tannins - keeping those tannins in check in a climate with such diurnal variation seems to be one of the big challenges for Colorado winemakers.

We were only in the area for two days, yet managed to pack a lot in. I definitely want to return; Denver and its environs are relaxed, easy-going places and, as one would expect from an area where so much drink is being made, there are some great restaurants and up-scale bars (we had Sunday brunch at The Kitchen in Boulder). The drinks scene is young and vibrant and going in very interesting directions - watch the Colorado space.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016


Wine geeks get very excited about clonal selection. "Is the clone Calera, Swan, or 777?" they'll ask when tasting a Pinot Noir, a question that means nothing to the typical drinker. These are clones which have been developed over the years by winemakers and grape growers to suit local conditions, and each clone has different attributes: flavour, acidity, tannins, ripening time. Pinot Noir is a variety which has hundreds of clones as it naturally mutates into different versions of itself; this reproduction is taken further by deliberately crossing different clones together to produce versions of the grape which have specific characteristics.

These clones produced through human interference have also naturally been developed over the centuries and some of the most famous grape varieties are crossings of other varieties. The reason vines grow grapes is to attract birds to eat them and spread the seeds elsewhere to propagate more vines. As these seeds are spread, they meet and reproduce with seeds from other varieties of grapes, which is why the exhaustive Wine Grapes book lists over 1,300 different grape varieties.

Bordeaux grapes

One of the most famous natural crossings is Cabernet Sauvignon. Originating from Bordeaux, its parents are two other grapes native to the region, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Given the shared name, it seems obvious that these two grapes together produced Cabernet Sauvignon but its distinct character confused people for some time - Cabernet Sauvignon has thick skins, is late ripening, and produces wines with deep blackcurrant aromas, while Cabernet Franc ripens earlier and its wines have more red fruits and Sauvignon Blanc is a white grape. However, DNA testing in the 1990s definitively proved the heritage of Cabernet Sauvignon, a heritage one can identify through the green, herbaceous aromas sometimes found in Cabernet Sauvignon and often found in both Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc.
Meanwhile, the other great Bordeaux grape, Merlot, is also a crossing, again of Cabernet Franc and an obscure, barely planted variety called Magdeleine Noire des Charentes which wasn't even given a name until the 1990s when it was found growing outside some villagers' houses.

Along with a now rarely-grown Bordeaux variety called Gros Cabernet, Cabernet Franc is also the parent grape of Carmenère, which is now mostly found in Chile. Cabernet Franc plays a vital if sometimes overlooked part in Bordeaux blends, adding colour, acidity, and aromas of red fruits and pencil shavings. As the parent grape of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, as well as Carmenère, it's perhaps entitled to call itself the most important Bordeaux grape.

Chardonnay, Aligoté, and Gamay

Crossings have been formed from both natural and human interference. Both can be unpredictable, but it's the natural evolution which can be the most surprising yet effective. Pinot Noir is one of the most promiscuous grapes, reproducing to create Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc. In Burgundy, the grape has mutated, either naturally or through cutting the best vines and planting them in a new vineyard, and this is one of the reasons the villages and vineyards of Burgundy produce such diverse wines.

This has not only led to it creating different versions of itself, but also completely different grape varieties. On three separate occasions, it has procreated with the same variety - Gouais Blanc, an otherwise forgettable white grape - to produce three different off-spring all now grown in Burgundy: Chardonnay, Aligoté, and Gamay. I remember being told this in a class, and a student shouted out, "But that's impossible! How can they produce such different varieties?" The instructor likened it to having children: one couple might have three children that can be hard to tell apart, another couple might have three children remarkably dissimilar, say with dark hair, fair hair, and red hair. So it was with Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc.

Müller-Thurgau and Scheurebe

That's how nature works, now back to the humans. Riesling is one of the most difficult grapes to grow, a late-ripening variety that only produces complex wines in a cool climate and on difficult stony soils. In the late 19th century and early 20th, German scientists attempted to create crossings that replicated the complexity of Riesling, but ripened much earlier to make life easier on growers. One of the crossings created was by a Dr. Müller, who hailed from the Swiss canton of Thurgau. He thought he was crossing Riesling with another quality German variety, Silvaner, but that other variety was in actual fact Madeleine-Royal, about which there is otherwise little of interest to say. In the 1960s, Müller-Thurgau began to dominate plantings as Germany recovered from the Second World War. It was easy and cheap to grow, its rise was unstoppable, and it so badly damaged Germany's reputation as the heart of once-fashionable wines such as Blue Nun and Black Tower. Since the 1990s, there has been a concerted effort to reduce plantings, but it's still the second-most planted variety in Germany, with 11,000ha of the country's 100,000ha of vines.

Another variety that was once thought to be a Riesling-Silvaner crossing is Scheurebe, created by a Dr. Scheu (Rebe means vine in German). It has grassy, grapefruit aromas, and its high acidity makes it ideal for good-quality sweet wine. Despite its quality, there's not much planted in Germany (just over 2,000ha) as it just doesn't produce wines as classy as Riesling, but there are some dry and sweet wines made from it (try Pfeffingen's dry Scheurebe from Pfalz). In 2012, it was finally discovered what the crossing was: Riesling and a variety I have never heard of called Buckettsrebe.

other notable crossings

One of my favourite crossings is Zweigelt, a fruity, often easy-drinking, yet tannic red that a customer once admitted to me she was addicted to. It's Austria's most planted black grape, and is a crossing of the country's two highest-quality black varieties, Blaufränkisch and St-Laurent. Its name comes from Dr. Zweigelt, who crossed the grapes in 1922. Hans Igler produces an extraordinarily good value Zweigelt from Burgenland.

Another less successful crossing is Pinotage, although South Africans would dispute that claim. The wines are often full of chocolate aromas, with a weird rubberiness. Despite that, it's become South Africa's national grape as it's barely grown elsewhere. Wines are getting much better as winemakers learn to deal with the grape (check out Rijk's). It was developed by South African I. A. Perold in 1925, a random crossing of Pinot Noir and the Rhône grape Cinsault. Both of these varieties are known for their red fruit characteristics, yet Pinotage has big, bold, overripe black fruit aromas. Such is the unpredictability of crossings ....

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Bordeaux Blends

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.

the grapes 

Cabernet Sauvignon

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.

Cabernet Franc

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.

Petit Verdot

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.