The Cipher of Bordeaux Blends

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

Take this list for what it is worth. A small peak behind the curtain thanks to a group of wines that works with the same or similar palates. It is a fascination exercise that seems to reveal a touch of group-think in an industry more accustomed to buzzwords that stress the unique. Terroir, typicity, authenticity, these are also check boxes, more and more in use and in fact dominant in the anti-establishment wing of the wine party. I am naïve of course, because I want it all. I am not an ideologue when it comes to wine, I do not believe that large producers and authenticity are incompatible, I can’t assign quality simply on the basis of scale and technique. There is some middle ground.

I think many if not most of my favorite wines here find that middle ground. They do not give up popular appeal yet forge an identity for themselves that is distinct of that of their neighbors’. It’s quite a challenge, particularly when one enters a world of ubiquity. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and increasingly Cabernet Franc and Malbec are growing around the globe. At the root of their widespread success is the ease with which they grow and produce compelling wines in such a variety of sites. That success, that visceral ability to produce, is also what makes so many of these wines alike.

Grown in ideal spots, all of these grapes have something unique to say, but it doesn’t take much to turn what they’re saying into indistinct mush. A few degrees too warm, a bit too much or little water, and the grapes no longer speak with a local accent but rather revert to a universal language. There is nothing wrong with the international style, in fact it is very successful, but unless you are the very best of the international style, you are one among many.

Many of these wines are perfectly fine and particularly well done, but not much different from one another. Some trade on name recognition, others on appellation or marketing, to maintain or increase their market share. One thing they don’t do is excite me. When I taste these wines, I try to gauge their overall quality, but at the same time I can’t ignore the fact that I am also thinking about what the wine represents and what I think it should be. 

Top List: Bordeaux Blends: Top Wines for the Cellar

So there it is, I try to be objective but I can’t be. I also have to be subjective if I am to be interesting! It is my market compromise, akin to what many wineries feel they have to do to retain an audience. I think the solution for us both, wineries and myself, is to continue to take risks and move towards the subjective, even embrace it in fact. We can all work towards being technically correct, but then we risk being lost in a sea of conformity.

I will continue to try to offer you an unfiltered impression of the wines I taste with the requisite point score but a detailed tasting note as well, and using our new Top Lists functionality I will call out my favorite wines. Categories such as top scoring wines, top value wines and wines worth cellaring. The wines worth cellaring list is particularly appealing to me, offering a shorthand way of hedging my bets. Letting you know that the 87 I awarded any particular wine should not be seen as a definitive answer, but for many wines a simple a starting point.

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  • 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
    89564 2,779

    "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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