The Alchemy of a Bordeaux Blend
When 1+1+1 = ONE
The ability to beautifully blend wines may be the most magical skill a winemaker can possess. To take the same grape grown in different places on a vineyard and blend the wines that come from those different places, or blocks, is one thing. But to take different varieties of grapes and blend them together to make a composite wine that reflects the combined flavors of those different varietals is true alchemy.
So it was this past week that I was happy to find myself in front of a computer screen on a Zoom call with Craig Becker, partner and winemaker at Priest Ranch and Somerset wines based in the Vaca Mountains high above Napa Valley. He was there to illuminate a gaggle of journalists on the subtleties of growing and blending different grapes to make a Bordeaux blend.
A red Bordeaux blend is a wine made using a combination of the six legally mandated grapes allowed to be included in the red wines made in the Bordeaux region of France. There are also white Bordeaux blends, but we are going to stick with the reds today.
The red grapes allowed are cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, malbec, petit verdot and Carménère. The red wines of Bordeaux are made using countless combinations of these grapes in varying percentages, depending upon what the winemaker would like the style of the wine to be and the gifts the vintage has provided. Claret is the term the Brits have used for these rich, structured wines, the overwhelming majority of which are led by either cabernet sauvignon or merlot grapes.
As the wine world has evolved and the Bordeaux grapes have made a march across the globe, winemakers in different regions have adopted the practice of marrying the varietals in their own combinations to make different wines, all under the Bordeaux blend moniker.
As Craig Becker began his talk, I opened and placed four bottles of the Priest Ranch Estate wines that had been sent to me behind my computer screen along with four empty glasses. The four wines were all from the 2015 vintage. Three of the wines were single Bordeaux varietals from single blocks on the estate. They were, in order, a Priest Ranch Block 136 Cabernet Sauvignon, a Block 81 Malbec and a Block 100 Petite Verdot. This means these wines were made with one grape, grown in an individual block of the vineyard. Each of these wines was unique to that block on the Estate Vineyard and each was an example — a great example I might add — of the single grape variety.
But the fourth wine was the reason we were on the Zoom call. This wine was the 2015 Priest Ranch Coach Gun. And it was a blend made from varying parts of the three previous wines.
“The ’15 Coach Gun is made up of 50% Block 136 Cab, 30% Petite Verdot and 20% Malbec,” said Craig, as all of us virtual tasters poured the last wine.
I had an “ah-ha” moment as I tasted it, after having gone through the first three wines moments before, that there was a revelation that the sum is greater than the parts. That the cabernet sauvignon provided depth and structure and was clearly the lead dog in the flavor profile, but that there was also a spiciness that the petit verdot had contributed and a tannic component that was enhanced by the malbec.
Tasting each of the wines separately, and then in concert, was not unlike listening to a trio of instruments playing a piece individually and then playing the same piece all together.
Of course, that was exactly the point, as Craig explained that there are nuances to how different grapes act and grow in different vintages. “We try everything as we look and taste individual wines and then the blends to produce wines with the right acidity and approachability,” he said. The individual wines from the single varietals show more vintage variation; in other words, the first three wines may be different every year from the year that preceded it.
But the goal of the Coach Gun is to create a wine that is just right for what people expect and anticipate in that wine. Different years will see different blends, but creating a wine that captures and expresses the fruits and the soils and the climates that make Priest Ranch wines what they are is the goal.
Wine is like that. It constantly offers an education.