After reading last week’s newsletter, a reader asked us: “what does each of this varietal contribute to the blend? How similar or dissimilar these grapes really are?” An excellent question indeed!
Let’s explore this topic and look at the specific characteristics of a few commonly used varietals in Bordeaux and Tuscany - Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Sangiovese.
Cabernet Sauvignon – the undisputed king of red wines
Its typical aromas are of dark cherries, blackcurrents and green bell peppers (more apparent in slightly unripe wines). Cabernet Sauvignon presents power, structure and amazing aging potential. It has thick grape skin, which lends to highly tannic structure and deep color. Exactly due to this rough tannic structure, the wine is not fleshy, and may even seem hollow in the middle. Therefore, it is often blended with mouthfilling merlot. Sometime, you would find 100% Cabernet Sauvignon wine from warm climates as full ripeness helps soften its tannic rigor. In addition, Cabernet Sauvignon has a strong affinity to oak and the toast aromas from the French barriques can be absorbed very well. The end product with proper bottle ageing can create some of the finest wine with incredible longevity.
Merlot – the charming grape, perfect partner for Cabernet Sauvignon
Its palate presents ripe fleshy fruit, plums, cherries, mouthfulling tannins with a smooth and silky texture. Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon presents a perfect couple. Cabernet can provide backbone and color while Merlot helps soften the masculine, tannic strength of Cabernet. While Merlot is often perceived as a blending varietal, it can take on the main role in the right climate, with the perfect examples from Pomerol and Saint-Emilion in Bordeaux.
Cabernet Franc – an excellent supplement to the CS/M combo
With aromas of currant, berries, red bell pepper with intense vegetal hints and a herbaceous finish, Cabernet Franc provides a smooth tannic structure and aromatic profile to the typical combination of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Don’t take it wrong though, Cabernet Franc can take on the significant role (excellent example from Cheval Blanc) or even 100% with great wines from Loire. Cabernet Franc grows particularly well in cooler climate with clay soils, such as in Saint-Emilion and Pomerol.
Sangiovese – the dominant star in the Italian wine scene
Cherry and berry fruit, Mediterranean herbal flavor, refreshing acidity and generally strong tannin are some usual characteristics of Sangiovese. In particular, the sometimes uncompromising tannin requires the wine to spend up to five years in large Slavonian oak barrles for the tannin to soften up. This is also the reason why some innovative winemakers decide to include French grape varietals such as those mentioned above and mature the wine in small, French barriques. Super Tuscan was thus born. Nowadays, Sangiovese can be 100% of the base with very fine examples as Brunello di Montalcino or even from Chianti Classico.
Of course, the list of grapes can go on and on as winemakers may include additional grape varietals such as Petit Verdot and Malbec commonly used in Bordeaux or Cesanese and Troia occasionally used in Tuscany. In the end, winemakers would adjust the blending mix across vintages to come up with that they think is the best representation of the year.
photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stefano_lubiana_wines/7021160881/