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Red Blends in the Bordeaux Style: California's Most Sophisticated Wines

by Steve Pitcher

There's no shortage of fans for California Cabernet Sauvignon, made from the noble red varietal that produces wines of depth, strength and lots of flavor not only in this state, but in virtually all of the world's wine regions that are home to the grape. Almost equally legion are those who are devoted to merlot, cabernet's softer, fleshier cousin. When a winemaker, however, chooses to blend these two varietals, often along with varying percentages of cabernet franc, petit verdot and/or malbec, the aim is to produce a more elegant, complex, sophisticated wine that reflects the character and breed of the great wines of Bordeaux.

In an earlier column, Vintner's Choice presented some basic background on the Meritage concept and proprietary red blends. Meritage reds by definition must be made only from two or more of the Bordeaux varietals mentioned above. If such a wine isn't labeled as Meritage (rhymes with heritage), it usually bears a fanciful name which the winery has the exclusive right to use, that is, the name is proprietary to the particular winery. The designation "Bordeaux blend" covers both Meritage and proprietary red blends. In most cases, these are the wineries' flagship products, aimed at the consumer who has an appreciation of the First Growths of Bordeaux, such as Chateau Margaux, Chateau Latour and Chateau Lafite Rothschild, as well as such "super seconds" as Chateau Pichon Lalande.

In the years since this "Bordeaux approach" began to influence more and more California winemakers, basically since the late 1980s, these wines have emerged as the most elegant and refined reds made in the state.

Painting with Flavors

The art of wine blending achieves its highest application in the crafting of wines such as Insignia from Joseph Phelps, Ridge Monte Bello and Opus One. While wines labeled "Cabernet Sauvignon," for example, may quite often contain some merlot and/or cabernet franc, which is acceptable if there's at least 75% cabernet sauvignon in the wine, blending at this level is aimed at best expressing the varietal named on the label. With Bordeaux blends, however, the goal is to arrive at a wine that is greater than the sum of its parts -- to transcend varietal expression and create a distinctive wine that incorporates the finest elements of its component parts without speaking with one dominant voice.

What does that actually mean on a practical level? Here's Ed Sbragia, Beringer's winemaker, talking about his Alluvium: "The merlot, cabernet sauvignon and small amounts of cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec I used in the blend all had luscious, juicy flavors that I merely watched over like an anxious parent for almost two years of ageing, predominantly in French Nevers oak barrels. When I sat down to make the final blend, I had a full palette of flavors in the samples in front of me on the table: ripe berries, black cherry and cassis, a touch of anise, the subtle mint that characterizes Knights Valley Cabernet, toasty vanilla and a hint of cedar from the barrels, and even a shadow of cocoa/mocha."

A "full palette of flavors" nicely sums up the concept behind Bordeaux blends.

The Vintners Club has been going strong for a quarter of a century now. To celebrate this milestone, the Club's members and guests gathered for a gala dinner enlivened by remarks from the guest of honor, the noted British wine writer Hugh Johnson. A special tasting of twelve of the finest examples of Bordeaux blends from California also commemorated the Club's 25th Anniversary.

The vintages were restricted to 1994 and 1995, arguably the finest years for California wines in this century. Prices ranged from $25 to $90 per bottle. The tasting panel was joined on this special occasion by almost a dozen Masters of Wine, whose credentials ensured a lively and severe evaluation process. This elite, international group of experts is quite small in number, less than 250 worldwide, with admission restricted to those who can pass a rigorous examination that rivals the lawyers' bar exam for difficulty. For a wine to emerge in the top rankings of this tasting is high praise indeed.

Tasting Notes

FIRST PLACE

1994 Joseph Phelps Insignia, Napa Valley ($70)
Appealing aromas of ripe black fruits (cassis, black cherry, black raspberry) from the blend of 88% cabernet sauvignon from estate-owned vineyards in Rutherford and the Stags Leap District, 10% Carneros merlot and 2% estate-grown Rutherford cabernet franc mingle with vanilla custard, cinnamon-clove spice and a mild, minty herbaceousness. Smooth and supple in the mouth with ripe, medium-full tannins, the wonderfully concentrated flavors exhibit ripe, plumy black fruits, sweet vanillin oak and notes of roasted coffee bean and mint, and linger persistently into the long finish. Complex and elegant, this Insignia certainly benefits from the excellent vintage and should ultimately prove to be the best Insignia the winery has produced so far. It shows every promise of ageing nicely into the next century. I recently sampled the 1995 Insignia and was equally impressed. Although not yet quite as forward as the '94, the '95 exhibits even greater structure and depth, with stronger tannins.

SECOND PLACE

1994 Beringer Alluvium, Knights Valley ($25)
Beringer's Knights Valley Vineyard is located 17 miles north of the Rhine House and winery proper and consists of stony, gravelly and volcanic alluvial soils (from which the wine's name was coined) washed down from Mt. St. Helena, which provide excellent drainage and offer limited nutrition. Until just a couple of years ago, Beringer called this wine Meritage. The 1994 Alluvium offers forward black cherry-berry scents enhanced by a hint of blueberry, cedar and cinnamon spice. Moderately complex and supple on the palate with medium tannins, the wine is nicely concentrated and delicious, with flavors that replicate the nose and tend to emphasize the high percentage of merlot in the blend, enhanced by cassis and anise notes.

THIRD PLACE
1994 Opus One, Napa Valley
($90)
This vintage of Opus One is undoubtedly the best so far, having benefited considerably from the longest, coolest growing season recorded in the Napa Valley in the last decade. Composed of 93% cabernet sauvignon, 4% cabernet franc, 2% merlot and 1% malbec, the 1994 Opus One offers a glorious nose of cassis and black cherry fruit, tobacco-leaf and mildly minty herbaceousness, shy black pepper, anise and cinnamon-clove spice, accented by subtle notes of warm earth and leather. Smooth and supple in the mouth with ripe, velvety tannins, the vibrant, well-integrated flavors focus on black fruits, green olive, tobacco leaf and vanillin oak. One Master of Wine was quite impressed by how the wine "hangs together in the mid palate," leading to a long, lingering finish. The French streak in this wine is a mile wide.

FOURTH PLACE
1995 Cardinale Meritage Red Table Wine, California
($60)
Cardinale is one of the wineries in the portfolio of Kendall-Jackson's Artisans and Estates producers, located in the completely redesigned Robert Pepi Winery next door to Opus One in the heart of Napa Valley's Oakville appellation. The 1995 Cardinale is the first vintage entirely controlled by former Opus One winemaker Charles Thomas, who composed a blend of 76% cabernet sauvignon and 24% merlot from mainly mountain and hillside vineyards in both Napa Valley and Sonoma County. The wine was pressed directly to new French oak barrels for 24 months of ageing, and was bottled unfiltered and only lightly fined with egg whites. The aromas, which one Master of Wine characterized as a "First Growth nose," entice with fragrant, complex scents of cassis and blackberries, vanilla, warm spice and dried herbs. Rich and luscious in the mouth with well concentrated, deep flavors that replicate the nose, the Cardinale is a powerful, highly extracted, full-bodied (14.2% alc.) wine with medium-full tannins, firm acidity and a huge dose of oak that will require several years of ageing to fully integrate.

FIFTH PLACE

1995 Geyser Peak Reserve Alexandre Meritage, Alexander Valley ($28)
Predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon, the Reserve Alexandre also contains all the other Bordeaux varietals -- merlot, malbec, petit verdot and cabernet franc -- and is a wonderful expression of the Meritage concept. Each varietal was vinified separately and matured for three months in French oak, after which the final blend was determined and put together and matured as a single wine for 13 months. Pleasant and appealing scents of vanilla, glove leather, sweet cassis and cherry-berry fruit, anise and eucalyptus expand and develop intriguing accents of orange peel, cedar and cinnamon. Smooth and generous in the mouth with medium tannins and lots of ripe, juicy, almost jammy black fruits, the wine broadens on the palate and lingers long on the finish. A big, delicious wine that nevertheless maintains fine balance.

SIXTH PLACE

1994 Ridge Monte Bello, Napa Valley ($80)
Always an elegant and impressive wine very much in the French style, this vintage of the Monte Bello offers forward scents of bright cassis-black cherry fruit, vanilla and clove-cinnamon spice. Smooth and luscious in the mouth with medium tannins, the flavors focus on ripe, almost port-like black fruits, sage and cinnamon spice. Finishes with a leathery note.

SEVENTH PLACE

1994 Cain Five, Napa Valley ($50)
A mountain-grown wine consisting of 63% cabernet sauvignon, 25% merlot, 6% cabernet franc, 4% malbec and 2% petit verdot, the 1994 Cain Five is the result of meticulous harvesting at optimum ripeness, involving 32 different lots that were hand harvested and vinified separately, finishing fermentation in the barrel. Following a careful evaluation of each lot, trial blends were prepared and, after many tastings, the final blend was made in the spring following the harvest. The wine was aged as a blend for 22 months in oak so that all the components could meld to form a complete whole. Winemaker Christopher Howell, who took part in the tasting, indicated that the Cain Five crew was particularly happy with the cabernet franc from their new high-density plantings. Forward, fragrant nose of dried herbs, roasted coffee beans, smoky oak, black fruits, vanilla and minerals. Lots of ripe black fruits on the palate with good depth and concentration, the wine shows quite a bit of oak at present, along with medium-full tannins and minty, peppery and chocolaty elements. Big and bold, this vintage of Cain Five should reward three to five years of ageing.

EIGHTH PLACE

1995 St. Clement Oroppas, Napa Valley ($35)
This wine stood out from the others in this tasting by the fact that a full one-quarter of the blend was cabernet franc, combined with 62% cabernet sauvignon and 13% merlot. The individual varietal lots were aged separately for just over a year in small new and one-year-old French oak in order to add oak spice to the flavors without too much oak tannin. According to winemaker Dennis Johns, "The idea behind the creation of a Meritage-style wine was to give the public a preview of the vintage, and, because of the shorter barrel ageing and earlier release date, an appreciation of its youthful, fruity qualities." In 1995, Johns utilized fruit from seven different Napa vineyards, including the largest percentage to date of estate-grown fruit in the merlot from Abbotts Vineyard and cabernet sauvignon from Howell Mountain. As to the cabernet franc, Johns says that "it's amazing how little of it can change the overall blend. It makes a statement for the Oroppas by giving it a seductive character in the nose and palate and accenting the sweet, ripe flavors at the core." Forward aromas of fresh, ripe black fruits, vanilla, toasty oak, mild herbs and a rose-like floral note are replicated in the mouth where the fruit is luscious and delicious. Neither over-extracted nor overly tannic, the wine shows fine balance and depth. It drinks nicely now and will gain complexity over the next two to three years.

NINTH PLACE

1995 Dry Creek Vineyard Meritage, Dry Creek Valley ($25)
The only wine in the tasting from Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley, this elegant and focused offering is a harmonious blend of 75% cabernet sauvignon, 19% cabernet franc and 6% petit verdot that was aged for 18 months in American oak, as opposed to the French oak used for the other wines in the tasting. Forward aromas of ripe, sweet black cherry-raspberry fruit, plum mild tea-like herbaceousness and a touch of spice. Silky, unctuous and elegant on the palate with a nice, juicy entry, the persistent fruit suggests cherries, red berries, plum and cranberries with a hint of mint. A lighter style Meritage from a cooler growing area, the wine finishes with a slightly peppery note.

TENTH PLACE

1994 Langtry Red Meritage, Napa Valley ($40)
The blueberry-tinged nose evidences a large dose (31%) of petit verdot in the blend, combined with 46% cabernet sauvignon, 16% merlot, 6% cabernet franc and one percent malbec. Additional scents of black cherries, cassis, mint and cedar round out the aromatics. Comparatively lighter in style with medium tannins, the wine's flavors focus on black fruits and vanilla, accented by notes of cocoa and cedar.

ELEVENTH PLACE

1994 Jekel Meritage Red Table Wine, Sanctuary Estate, Arroyo Seco ($30)
A blend of the five classic Bordeaux varietals, the Jekel Meritage really impressed me with its distinctive, forward, wonderfully fragrant, Medoc-like nose of herbs, cassis and truffles, which some of the others on the panel found to be a bit too herbaceous. Black fruits on the palate mingle with a distinct herbal element that doesn't become vegetative; elegant, smooth and moderately complex, as well as controversial. Jekel Vineyards is one of only a very tiny number of California wineries that bottle each of the Bordeaux varietals separately. Winemaker Rick Boyer's varietal Malbec is a particularly impressive wine, produced, as are all the other Bordeaux varietals, from fruit grown in the Sanctuary Estate Vineyard, which is a veritable rock pile of a place with coarse, gravelly, alluvial soils protected from the summer's strong, hot winds by the looming palisades of the long-gone Arroyo Seco River. These walls also channel cooling marine winds from Monterey Bay to the vineyard, creating a cool microclimate in what would otherwise be a very warm growing area.

TWELFTH PLACE

1994 Clos Du Bois Marlstone, Alexander Valley ($25)
Somewhat Zinfandel-like nose of raspberries and red cherries that has a not-quite-fresh, earthy element to it. Comparatively one-dimensional in this line-up, the wine offers more structure than cassis fruit on the palate, with elevated acidity and a slightly bitter finish.

Steve Pitcher is a freelance wine writer based in San Francisco. He is vice president of the Vintners Club and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the German Wine Society.



Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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