Don't miss John Gilman's first installment in this series on Bordeaux, "Discover St. Emilion."
The Right Bank commune of St. Emilion is home to two of the wine world’s most dramatic red wine grapes, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. While winemakers in St. Emilion will also use several other grapes to round out their blends, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec or Petit Verdot, it is the two varieties of Cabernet Franc and Merlot that hold sway over the red wine blends of the region and really define its wines.
Each estate has its own historical blend of these two grapes, with Merlot playing the predominant role at one property and Cabernet Franc making up the majority of the blend at another châteaux, and so it is really necessary to discuss the characteristics of both Merlot and Cabernet Franc when discussing the wines of St. Emilion.
Of the two grape varieties, Merlot is by far the best-known outside of France and has been more widely planted in other wine-producing regions around the globe. One should note that Merlot has not always done particularly well outside of its Right Bank homes of St. Émilion and Pomerol, and its rather unfashionable reputation today has much to do with its more hit or miss character outside of its home base in Bordeaux than it does with the very obvious success the varietal enjoys there. Cabernet Franc on the other hand, has really been rather sparingly planted outside of its two main French home bases of St. Émilion and the Loire Valley, where it is by a very wide margin the dominant grape in the most prestigious Loire Valley red wines such as Chinon, Bourgueil and Saumur-Champigny. But both grapes do exceedingly well in St. Émilion and should be looked at individually to see how they adapt themselves to this beautiful section of Bordeaux.
Cabernet Franc is ironically the less well-known of the two grapes in St. Émilion, despite it being the fundamental building block of the blend at the commune’s finest property, Château Cheval Blanc (which is comprised of two-thirds Cabernet Franc). In the eyes of most Bordeaux historians, Cheval Blanc has been ranked amongst the First Growths in Bordeaux since the very early days of the twentieth century- dating at least as far back as the release of the estate’s legendary 1921 vintage and the attendant sensation that the wine produced on both sides of the Atlantic. But Cabernet Franc also excels in the beautiful gravelly and chalky soils that lie along the meandering Loire River, and in both St. Émilion and the Loire Valley, the grape is responsible for some of the most complex and individualistic wines in all the world. In many ways, though perhaps the acreage of Merlot planted in St. Émilion rivals the amount planted to Cabernet Franc, it is Cabernet Franc that really defines the wines of the commune, as it gives these reds a unique character that sets them off from many of their nearby neighbors in the commune of Pomerol, where Merlot plays the dominant role in all of the estates’ blends.
Cabernet Franc is a very interesting grape variety that shares many similarities with its cousin, Cabernet Sauvignon- though there are quite distinct characteristics to both varieties as well. Cabernet Franc tends to produce a bit less full-bodied wine in general than Cabernet Sauvignon, though the wine is no less ageworthy in general for not possessing quite the same powerful personality. Like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc can often be a bit herbaceous early on in its evolutionary cycle, and when ripeness is not optimal, this herbaceousness can seem almost vegetal in a young wine made from this grape. But Cabernet Sauvignon definitely shares this attribute with Cabernet Franc, which is one of the reasons we have seen so many very high alcohol, low acids renditions of Cabernet Sauvignon in the last decade or two in places like California, as winemakers there strive to work this natural tendency towards “greenness” in Cabernet Sauvignon out of the finished wine by letting the grapes hang on the vine until the cows come home. Fortunately, vignerons working with Cabernet Franc have been less prone until recently to seek the same style for their Cabernet Franc, so the wine world has not been as abused by absurdly high alcohol levels in most wines that rely upon Cabernet Franc in their blends.
A finished wine where Cabernet Franc plays a dominant role in the cépage, as is the case with a great many wines in St. Émilion, tends to be a bit less overtly fruit-defined than is the case with wines based primarily on either Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. Cabernet Franc-based wines tend to offer up notes of dark berries, cassis, often notes of black coffee, smoke, tobacco leaf and fresh herbs. Cabernet Franc also seems to be a bit more adept than Cabernet Sauvignon at picking up its underlying soil flavors and translating those into the finished wine, making it a particularly fine match with the profoundly complex signatures of soil to be found in the more traditionally styled wines of the St. Émilion Côtes. Merlot also does very well in these distinctive soils- witness the profound complexity of soil tones to be found in a Côtes wine such as Château Magdelaine (perhaps with the First Growth, Château Haut Brion, the most soil-driven wine in all of Bordeaux), which is made up in most vintages of fully ninety percent Merlot. And in fact, Merlot’s expression in St. Émilion is quite distinct from that found in most of the wines of nearby Pomerol, with the Merlot-based wines of St. Émilion less overtly plummy and raspberry-scented than those found in Pomerol, with more black cherry and dark berry notes appearing in the fruit component and plenty of smokiness and coffee tones as well from the synthesis of this variety and St. Émilion’s various terroirs. Merlot-based St. Émilion wines will also often display a bit of mintiness or menthol in their aromatics.
While the fairly disparate types of terroir found in the two main regions of St. Émilion -- the gravel terraces along the Pomerol border and the chalky hillsides and lower clay limestone soils of the “Côtes” and its environs -- make generalizations about the styles of wines produced primarily from these two main grape varietals difficult, there is little doubt that the interplay of these two grapes with the soils of St. Émilion create a prototype of what we tend to think of as St. Émilion wine. Both grapes (in whatever varying percentages they appear in each château’s blend) often tend to historically produce slightly lighter styled wines than their counterparts in the Médoc, and slightly more structured wines than the more velvety and opulent wines of their Right Bank neighbors to the northwest in Pomerol. This was probably the case historically, but as we discussed earlier in the general article on St. Émilion, the modern school of winemaking here in the commune aspires to produce more powerful, new oaky and opulent wines that do not bear a whole lot of resemblance to the refined complexity of the slightly more delicate wines of St. Émilion’s past. Whether this new style will one day in the future be seen to represent the style of St. Émilion remains to be seen, but it is quite clear that this style is a rather radical departure from the refined elegance and long-lived style of the best St. Émilions which made this commune famous a generation ago, and which continues to define the most profound examples from the traditionalist school of St. Émilion winemaking to this day.