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What are the Bordeaux Varietals?

What are the Bordeaux varietals?

It’s a question that comes up from time to time around here: what are the Bordeaux varietals?

Generally speaking there are 6 grapes on the list of Bordeaux varietals:

Cabernet Sauvignon: In Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon makes up the dominant percentage of wines on the left bank. The grape of course has also become in many ways the dominant red wine grape throughout the world.  The prices for high end Cabernet greatly exceed any other varietal. Pinot has caught up quite a bit, but top tier Pinot is often $65 these days, about half of an equivalent Cabernet Sauvignon.

Merlot: More important in Bordeaux than elsewhere, as it’s largely fallen out of favor in America and elsewhere over time.  That’s partially because Merlot gives higher yields in worse vineyard sites, so it slants our perception of the grape.  Which drives down prices. Which causes growers to plant Merlot in increasingly poorer and poorer vineyard locations.  Which drives down prices.  It’s a death spiral of sorts that doesn’t have to be so, largely based on the absurdly high quality of Merlot that is produced on Bordeaux’s right bank, as well as, Washington.

Cabernet Franc: Interestingly, it’s one of the parent grapes of at least 10 current production grapes, including Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  Generally speaking, it’s thought of as more female in characteristics.  Higher acidity and much less tannins than others on this list.

Petite Verdot: Adds color to blends and really very, very few varietal specific wines are ever made from Petite Verdot because the tannins are so overpowering. In 5+ years running my wine club, I’ve only seen a handful of 100% Petite Verdot and even those came with some sort of qualifier by other winery staff (ie, oh that’s the winemaker trying to prove that he’s smarter than everyone else, etc).

Malbec: It’s found a home in South America (much like Carmenere) and gains an international level of prominence and respect in Argentina, where it’s become their national wine grape.  The grape has a thinner skin than Cabernet or Merlot and generally need significantly more degree days to ripen fully, making it a bad fit in the cooler climates of its French homeland.

Carmenere: This is Chile’s national wine grape and shares much of the same story as Argentina and its Malbec.  Almost extinct in Bordeaux, the South Americans literally saved this grape which is one of the truly ancient wine grapes still in existence today. Yields are naturally low and cold and wet springs make Carmenere do one thing that growers despite above all others: take a vintage off.  Yes, a cold and wet spring and your vines may choose to not grow any grapes during that vintage, no matter how good your summer weather.  For that reason, South America has become a better home and other warmer climate regions like Walla Walla and Australia are experimenting with the grape. The tale here, is yet to be told.

Long story short: What are the Bordeaux varietals? There are 6 historic and accepted Bordeaux varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Carmenere, Petite Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec.

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