The Cipher of Bordeaux Blends

Decoding the meaning of CS-M-CF-PV-M


People are not going to like what I have to say here, but that is okay, this is not a popularity contest. I do not write about wine to gather as many friends or followers as possible. I write about wine because I love wine and while I know my palate sometimes strays outside of the mainstream, so be it. I know many other people share my tastes or at least a curiosity of what lurks beyond the familiar, so if I can help just those people, well I am fine with that.

Beyond disliking what I have to say about these Bordeaux-style blends, some might even say that I just don't get it. That is fine because if there is something here I'm missing, I'm happy to be missing it. I found enough wines to recommend quite highly, though some of the better-known wines tasted faired less well. I found them formulaic, indistinct, overly oaken and while generous, they just seemed to be over wrought.

Consider that these were buildings, I am simply expressing my preference to Tudor over the Baroque. I don’t mind solid wine as long as I can get a real feeling for all the elements of the wine. Dressing up a massive wine in excessive ornamental oak makes it very challenging to really understand that wine. Most of these Bordeaux-style blends have the potential for, if not the need of, some cellaring. While I do believe that can I forecast the future of many wines to a degree and I am happy to do so with my money, when it comes to spending your money, a higher standard is in order.

Photo courtesy Robert Couse-Baker via Flickr/CC

Top List: Bordeaux Blends: Top Values

That is where the trouble begins. Do I fall back on popular conventions that oak does integrate and that certain wines have a penchant for ageing well? Or do I stick by what I taste and admit to you that I am not all certainty and seeing? It is a tough call and goes back to the introduction of this article. I am not here for everyone and I am certainly not here as a definitive authority. So it is with some regret that I admit to you that some of these wines might be fooling me. They might be great wines, but I just can’t see it. I see too much extraction, too much oak and too much winemaking for these wines to be great in my book. Adding in the need for some age just makes the entire calculus even more challenging.

There is of course a difference between what I like and what is good, especially if we are out hunting for the mythical “universal good.” I have stuck to my own guns and scored these wines primarily on what they are showing today. Yes, many have potential and I’ve noted that potential both in the written reviews and built a list of Top Bordeaux Blends to Cellar. As far as the point scores go, that easy shorthand that lets you compare wines, I have tried to make it work for how the wines are showing as opposed to how the wines may show at some indeterminate day in the future.

While I am loathe to turn this introduction into yet another screed on the 100 point scoring system, it is with this group of wines that the inadequacies of the system become most glaring. Many of these wines were built for the 100 point system, quite literally. If we were going to simply mark a series of check boxes when evaluating wine, I’m sure they would score notably higher than they have, but that’s not really what wine is about. Wine is fundamentally about pleasure these days. For anyone spending the tens of dollars a bottle these wines cost, it is all about indulgence.

There are all forms of indulgence and thus all types of palates, but for me a wine should be delicious to be worth buying. You can add on bells and whistles if you want and to a certain extent that may improve your experience with a wine, but once the wine becomes just bells and whistle, what are you left with? Marked off check boxes.

Top List: Bordeaux Blends: Top Scoring Wines

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Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: davidboyer
    208575 26

    Dear Gregory,

    I’m pretty sure I agree with your palate and wine assessments more than not, and considering this list, I can certainly see why you would not be enamored of these wines. Conspicuously missing from your list of Bordeaux blends is actual Bordeaux. This puzzles me as to why someone would go to great lengths to review (and they are useful and detailed reviews) Bordeaux blends without including the real thing. You know as well as I do that many so called 'new world' wines tend to be over-extracted fruit bombs, lack distinction and character, are over-oaked, and are a notch away from becoming an alcoholic version of some sort of Coke or Pepsi concoction. Many people love these wines and I cannot fault anyone for having taste that differs from mine but this is indeed the character of Napa, much domestic, and other new world wines.

    However the French approach to Bordeaux is very different because there is much more attention to how vines are tended in the vineyards and far less intervention in the winemaking process (reverse osmosis, micro-oxygenation are two of the most offensive culprits). There is of course also the issue of terroir, which is a whole other subject, but is still remarkably important to the French and undeniable if you spend any time with Bordeaux or Burgundy wine. And after all is said and done in the wine world, every winemaker was initially inspired by, and attempted to emulate, French wine from every single region! Because French wine is impossible to replicate outside of France, new profiles were established but, sadly, mostly to accommodate marketing initiatives.

    I think your list is fine but almost shudder when using a reference such Bordeaux. In every sense, these wines are literally and figuratively worlds apart.

    Best regards,

    David Boyer

    Apr 17, 2012 at 12:51 PM

  • Snooth User: Stevern86
    909211 36

    David, I agree with your assessment of the difference between French and new world wines. I really don't fault either style. To oversimplify, I think the difference in styles reflects lattitudes and attitudes. Lattitudes being California's vineyard locations far to the south of France and the resultant difference in the way the grapes ripen. Attitudes being the American's thirst for instant gratification. Comparing French and Califiornia wines is like comparing Hollywood movies and British films. Like Hollywood movies, California wines have mass appeal, especially for those with less wine drinking experience or interest. They often give one the instant wow factor. And like good American films, some are truly world class. I think of French wines as British films. Although they may not sweep you off your feet at first, given the investment of paying attention to their complexity, (unmasked by excessive fruit), they reward with a very satifying experience. I think for many, to aquire an appreciation for the French wine style takes more patience.
    I have another observation in regards to the wines listed in this article. Although I am all for blending to produce the best wine possible, as opposed to staying within the mandated terms of varietal labeling, When I see 6 or 7 different grapes in a bottle I wonder if this is just a way to market some of the excess juice out there.
    P.S. I am a California Native with French heritage, and a healthy bias towards both French and California wines.

    Apr 17, 2012 at 4:24 PM

  • Snooth User: davidboyer
    208575 26

    Hi Stevern,

    So we're in agreement. I know that California wines have made an exponential contribution to the now ubiquitous wine culture in America and that's truly an awesome achievement. I hope that some will use California as a gateway to explore the entire world of wine because, as you know, there is much more out there to be enjoyed.

    You may be right in some cases about blending 6 or 7 grapes but don't forget about CDP, which can use up to 13 grapes and it's impossible to tell how many may be in any particular bottling. I believe that blending is truly an art and if the wine warrants adding more to enhance its properties (or to subtract from its faults), I'm all for it.

    What I'm not for is any winemaker that intervenes with the winemaking process through the use technology because this is how we'll end up with previously mentioned soft drink profiles for wine. We’re rapidly heading toward massive homogenization, even less character, flavor additives, recipes, and any other means to carve out corporate profits. I have tasted things in wine in the past couple of years that are not even wine borne flavors and it’s scary to think that the real art of wine will someday be lost.

    Anyhow I appreciate your comments and perspective.

    Best regards,


    Apr 17, 2012 at 5:34 PM

  • Snooth User: Stevern86
    909211 36

    David, I recognize and agree with your observation about the homogenization of wines. Unfortunately the corporate culture of greed is having a profound impact on the wine world. Big money for vineyard land and high per bottle prices are also homoginizing the Cabernets of Napa. With such big money on the line, risk taking by producers is inhibited. The wines are starting to taste more and more similar to one another. That's creates boredom for me. I am currently loving Paso Robles for that reason. There is the old vine zinfandels, but so many winemakers doing great things with Rhone style blends, Italian varietals, and yes even Bordeaux style blends. I really enjoy the variety and expermintation going on there. It creates so many interesting wines that there is something to pair traditionally or creatively with any food. Food being another passion of mine. Not to mention that the wines of Paso of are not so prestiege priced and many good vaules abound. So in summary, I see investment cost and prestiege pricing driving homogenization of the "upper" end of California wines and industrialization homogenizing the low price end. The creativity lies in the mid price range in areas that are building a reputation. I too hate to see those creative wines in the middle get squeezed out by economics.
    Best Regards to you as well,

    Apr 18, 2012 at 1:35 AM

  • I would love to know more about the 2nd and 3rd tier Bordeaux wines for everyday drinking.

    Apr 18, 2012 at 3:34 PM

  • Snooth User: GregT
    Hand of Snooth
    89564 2,676

    "the French approach to Bordeaux is very different because there is much more attention to how vines are tended in the vineyards and far less intervention in the winemaking process (reverse osmosis, micro-oxygenation are two of the most offensive culprits)".

    On what planet is this actually true?

    Opposite world?

    Where the French pay attention to the vineyards and the Californians let the grapes grow any old way.

    Now the idea of micro-oxygenation is of course, a different story. That's something used all over in CA. The purpose is largely to make a softer wine, smoothing out the rough tannins a bit. Where do those tannins come from? Super-ripe grapes. The same ripe grapes that account for the fruit-bomb nature of those Napa wines. Where grapes don't get as ripe, you don't want those micro-ox machines because the grape tannins are naturally softer - they get less sun and heat.

    So where did the micro-ox technique come from? Hint - it had nothing at all to do with a Frenchman called Patrick Ducournau. Because if it did, it might have had to do with the fact that he was trying to save Tannat from being completely extinguished since all the growers in Madiran were pulling up their stock in the 1980s and 1990s because the wine was just not good. He did not work with people in the Enology Department at the University in Montpelier to refine his ideas, and I don't believe he created a successful company to sell the micro-ox machines as a result of that work. The reason I don't believe any of that is because it's not micro-bulllage that he was doing. In English of course, that's micro-oxygenation, which is one of the most offensive culprits.

    More significantly, I doubt very much that MO is used in Bordeaux to any extent. Wine makers like Stéphane Derenoncourt are not on record talking about having been the first to do micro-bulllage in Bordeaux and talking about how he does it today.

    But what about reverse osmosis? That's surely something that they use in CA and not in France, where the terroir is paramount? In winemaking, it's a way of concentrating the must. Traditionally winemakers would bleed some liquid. That however, would lose more than just water. So, adapting a technique that the military had developed to produce potable water, winemakers started doing it to concentrate grape must. It can be done via a membrane, just like a filter, or with vacuum techniques.

    They are not all used in Bordeaux because EU regulations prohibit using all three in the same vintage. So the careful producer has to select which one he'd like for that year. Clearly it isn't used in places like Léoville Las Cases, Léoville Barton and Château Ducru Beaucaillou, Chateau Palmer and others. And if it were used by places like Las Cases, it wasn't used as far back as 1987. And if it was, it's still not all that bad because the owner, Jean-Hubert Delon, would say they only do it in certain vintages.

    At any rate, "There is of course also the issue of terroir, which . . .is still remarkably important to the French . . ." Absolutely. It's ignored by every single producer in CA. And because that terroir is so important, most producers in Burgundy and Bordeaux do not add a little sugar to their must. That sugar would come from cane in Cuba and contribute the ashy flavors from Fidel's cigars. Sugar is only added in CA, where they don't care about terroir, because the CA heat and sun don't ripen the grapes as well as the gloom and clouds of Burgundy and Bordeaux.

    The purity of the Bordeaux wine can indeed be contrasted with the manipulated nature of CA wine. Where there is plenty of sun and light, it's understandable that one might resort to various machines and techniques to adjust their wine. In places with less sun and more rain and clouds, they can simply take what nature gave them.

    In fact, the biggest criticism one can lob at CA is that so many producers think if ripeness is good, more ripeness is better. But it's also interesting to read comments regarding the differences in French and American winemaking.

    Apr 20, 2012 at 12:03 AM

  • Snooth User: binnotes
    1008903 4

    Nice representations of CA & WA wines here - great to see Brian Carter included. Missing but worth tasting: DeLille, Mathews Estate/Tenor, and Col Solare. Cheers.

    Apr 23, 2012 at 12:00 PM

  • Snooth User: Helen Poole
    1337036 29


    Aug 30, 2013 at 6:05 AM

  • Snooth User: anvilpep
    1370081 34


    Sep 24, 2013 at 1:20 AM

  • good

    Sep 27, 2013 at 2:31 AM

  • fantastic

    Oct 07, 2013 at 12:08 AM

  • good

    Jan 21, 2014 at 1:09 AM

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