Blending in Bordeaux
- By Mary Gorman-McAdams MW
- 15 Dec 2020
- 5 MIN
- Level 101
Blending in Bordeaux is a combination of art, skill, and experience. Blending usually makes one think of the different grape varieties, but that is oversimplifying matters. Blending decisions are influenced by many more factors, to build balance, complexity, quality, style, and consistency.
Why Blend? (And Which Factors Influence The Blend?)
Firstly, Bordeaux is planted with a number of different grape varieties, both red and white, with different varieties as Bordeaux has so many different soil types. However it is not simply gravels on the Left Bank and clay-limestone on the Right, but far more complex, with multiple soil combinations and permutations across appellations and within individual vineyards.
Different grape varieties prefer different soils; Cabernet needs the warmest, driest soils (gravels and sandy gravels) whereas Merlot prefers cooler, more moist soils (clay). Wine estates make planting decisions not only around soil type but also aspect and moderating influences (e.g. the Garonne and Dordogne rivers, Gironde Estuary etc.) because different grape varieties ripen at different times, with late ripening varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot needing all the help they can get, as well as a long growing season.
Beyond Vineyard Plantings
While the vineyard blend may appear to be important, the wine blend in any given vintage may not mirror vineyard plantings. This is due to vintage variation, the result of weather during the annual growing season. Bordeaux sits along the Atlantic coast and is subject to the winds, rain, and cold weather thrown up by the region’s proximity to the ocean.
Depending on the weather at bud break, flowering, heat and sunshine hours during summer, rainfall, humidity, plus weather in the final days of ripening, both yield and quality can be affected. Unless there is a complete disaster, most blends remain with their usual Merlot or Cabernet predominance, but exact percentages change, as will the inclusion of Petit Verdot, Carménère or Malbec, varieties traditional to the blend but more challenging to grow. In all of these decisions, winegrowers are blending for their desired quality, style, and consistency.
Achieving all this is easier today with the movement toward plot-by-plot viticulture and winemaking, where each smaller plot can be precisely tended during the growing season, harvested at optimum ripeness, and vinified separately giving the winegrower more blending options, precision, and control.
And Far Beyond Grape Varieties
Blending decisions go beyond grape varieties. They also include “lot” selections, i.e. which lots make the “Grand vin”, and which end up in the second or third wine or even sold off as bulk. Especially at the higher end, blending decisions are critical to achieving the perfection required on an annual basis, by the estate, market, and critics.
Other blending decisions revolve around the use of different fermentation vessels. Today many estates have a mix of cement, stainless steel, and wooden fermenters of various shapes and sizes, which increase blending possibilities, including the use of small barrels for “vinification intégrale” on some red wine lots.
Oak is key in blending decisions. Most Bordeaux red wines are aged in barrel for a certain period before bottling; oak choices add an extra slew of options. Depending on the vintage, the percentage of new oak used may change. Some lots will go into new oak, some into second and third fill etc. In addition, it is not just 225 litre barrels, as many opt for larger format barrels. Add to this varied coopers, toast levels, and oak provenance, and you have even more blending options.
From Before Harvest To The Final Blend
Blending decisions are not a single event. From before harvest, winegrowers are already contemplating blending possibilities. As the new wines are made, tasting is ongoing through maturation when the final blend for bottling is decided.
Many people are involved in building the blend: owners, oenologists (both in-house and consulting), as well as technical and business directors. Together they aim to build structure, mouthfeel, depth, and complexity whilst retaining terroir expression.
In most years blending decisions are about a little tweaking to navigate the growing season. However, in some years, such as the frosty 2017 vintage when overall volume was down by 40%, blending becomes even more critical as wine growers strive to produce wines that still reflect both their philosophy and terroir.
For styles and appellations that can blend between areas in Bordeaux, blending offers the opportunity to increase volume, more particularly for wines labelled AOC Bordeaux where grapes and young wines can be sourced throughout the region. This is typical of negoçiant brands, where finished wines are sourced from growers all over the region and blended centrally at the negoçiant’s property.
Finally, many appellation regulations (“cahier des charges”) include regulations on required and permitted grapes. For example, dry white wines labeled Entre-Deux-Mers must be a blend of at least two required varieties, with permitted varieties maxed at 30%.
Blending is truly at the soul of Bordeaux. Part instinct, part science, and part experience, it enables the best of each vintage. As climate change and environmental protections take centre stage, we will continue to see more options and possibilities in the winegrowers’ blending toolbox to manage new challenges, whilst preserving the soul of the Bordeaux terroir.