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Five Grapes
By Robert Whitley
May 15, 2012
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Over a recent weekend, I conducted my annual wine-tasting fundraiser for the La Jolla Symphony. Each year, this year being the 11th, I choose a theme that might provide an educational component as well as have entertainment value.

This year's topic: "The Grapes of Bordeaux." The subject is near and dear to me because of a fascination with Bordeaux that goes back more than 30 years, to a time when I was a novice collector assembling my first wine cellar.

As you may know, Bordeaux is not a grape; it is a region. I assumed everyone knew this, or at least anyone willing to shell out $100 a pop to attend a charity benefit with the word Bordeaux in the invitation.
 
To my utter surprise and dismay, when I asked the audience if anyone could name the five red grapes of Bordeaux, only two hands went up. The majority of those in attendance had little or no clue that Bordeaux rouge is primarily a blended wine made from an approved list of grapes.

I'm not sure why this surprised me. Wine enthusiasts of a certain generation are accustomed to varietal wines that list the grape variety on the label. Cabernet sauvignon and merlot have replaced Bordeaux and Burgundy as the dominant wines stocked by most wine merchants.
 
There is that, but there's also the role that price plays in the modern wine culture. Top-notch classified growths from Bordeaux tend to be the most expensive wines money can buy. Many wine merchants no longer bother to stock these wines.

I know this because I went to a couple of my favorite wine merchants to purchase the Bordeaux for the tasting and could only find much less expensive fringe Bordeaux from chateaux I'd never heard of. Neither had any of the grand cru classe wines of Bordeaux that make collectors swoon.
 
What I fear is that our understanding, and eventually our appreciation, of one of the world's most important wines is fading, as Bordeaux prices itself out of the reach of the ordinary wine drinker.
 
That said, the influence of Bordeaux remains strong, and that brings me to the historic red grapes of Bordeaux: cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, malbec and petit verdot.

There is a sixth, carmenere, which is virtually extinct in the region today because it only thrives in a warm climate; hence it has found new life in Chile.
These five grapes are not only the basis for modern Bordeaux, but they are the backbone of the modern wine industry in the so-called "New World." When vintners mention the "international" grape varieties, they invariably refer to cabernet sauvignon, merlot and to a lesser extent the other three historic grapes of Bordeaux, which are used for the most part as small components to add complexity and structure.
 
Initially, however, the reason for five grapes was strictly commercial. The weather in Bordeaux is so marginal for viticulture that different grapes with their own peculiar ripening patterns were planted to ensure that no matter what evil turn nature took, "something" would ripen so that wine could be made.
This gave rise to the distinction between "right bank" and "left bank" that endures to this day. On the right bank of the Gironde River, which dissects Bordeaux on its path to the Atlantic, the soils are predominantly clay. Cabernet sauvignon struggles to ripen on the right bank because the clay soils are cold, and the late-ripening cabernet sauvignon vines need warmth.

So the right-bank enclaves of Pomerol and Saint-Emilion are heavily planted with early ripening merlot vines, and to a lesser extent cabernet franc in the Saint-Emilion district. Pomerol's Chateau Petrus, the most expensive wine in the world at more than $2,000 per bottle, is usually 100 percent merlot.
 
On the left bank, in Graves, Pessac-Leognan and the Medoc, cabernet sauvignon is king. This is where the most famous chateaux — Lafite Rotchschild, Mouton Rothschild, Margaux, Latour and Haut-Brion — live.
When the late Robert Mondavi, arguably the most famous and/or important personality in American wine, decided to pursue a joint venture with a major chateau in Bordeaux, he partnered-up with Chateau Mouton, and they created Opus One.
 
There is simply no denying the historic influence of Bordeaux on American wine. And that, dear reader, is why you should acquaint yourself with the cinq cepages, the five red grapes of Bordeaux.
 
Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru.