Clearly, Meritage wines are crafted and marketed to compete with the best Bordeaux wines, and no wonder. For hundreds of years, the Bordelais have been using and refining the art of blending to make their wines.
In part, this started from necessity; back in the day, a winemaker was very much at the mercy of the weather and nature – you try a natural yeast fermentation in a non-temperature controlled barrel! While today’s winemakers obviously have much more control, blending is still used to create a wine that can be infinitely better than the sum of its parts.
However, these wines were not renowned from the get-go. It is believed that viticulture began in Bordeaux around 48 AD, with the first written mention of such wines coming from Pliny in 71. Though Bordeaux was enjoyed domestically, it wasn’t exported until the 12th century, with the marriage of Henry Plantagenet and Eleanor of Aquitaine opened a market in England.
At the time, the color of Bordeaux wines was closer to a rosé, not the deep red of today. As a result, the exported wine was given the name “claret,” an Anglicization of the French word clairet, meaning pale.
It’s hard to say what makes Bordeaux wines so excellent. The region offers a good environment for growing wine – the limestone soil is rich in calcium and the Gironde estuary provides irrigation and moderates the climate.
Yet, the water also created a humid environment that invites mold and other pests, and the weather is unstable and can change very quickly.
What is inarguable is that the combination of grapes in this cuvee makes Bordeaux and Bordeaux-style wines some of the most delicious in the world.
There are six grapes that are allowed in a red Bordeaux (style) blend:
This grape is a cross between cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc. The grape prefers well-drained soil, but can thrive in most. It is among the most widely planted red grapes in the world, and the second most planted red grape in Bordeaux.
Regardless of its origin, cabernet sauvignon offers wine a characteristic black currant flavor.
This grape prefers a cool climate and damp, water-retaining soils like clay. This grape is known more for its texture than flavors: its wine is velvety smooth with soft tannins. It was been described as “cabernet without the pain.”
In terms of flavor, merlot is characterized by a plumy richness with notes of ripe blue and black berries. It is the most widely planted grape in Bordeaux.
Lighter than cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc shares its offspring’s intensity and richness. It offers a bright red color and peppery aromas to the blend. The grape is also characterized by notes of raspberry and violet though, like cabernet sauvignon, it can be a bit “green.”
Wine from this grape is hallmarked by its dark, inky, almost violet color. It also is known for robust tannins and plum flavors. In fact, malbec has been called “rustic merlot.” Malbec from Argentina tends to be softer and juicier than its French counterparts.
A member of the cabernet family, this is one of the original six grapes in the Bordeaux blend, though very little of it grows in France today.
On the vine, the grape looks quite similar to merlot (the two have often been confused in the vineyard) and it shares the grape’s medium body and softer tannins. In addition, Carmenère can be identified by its aromas and flavors of red fruit, spice and berry.
Though less well-known, white Brodeaux – crafted in both dry and sweet styles – is quite a delectable cuvee. The allowed grapes are:
This is the dominant white grape, playing a particularly important role in sweet wines as it is highly susceptible to the noble rot that makes Sauternes, Sauternes. It brings a golden color and luscious body to the wine. Low acidity makes it less suitable for dry wines, though oak ageing helps mitigate the grape’s tendency towards flabbiness.
This grape brings the acidity that keeps the region’s sweet wines from becoming cloying. It must be 25% of the blend for Graves dry white wines and is also allowed to be produced as a single-varietal, still dry white – the only exception to the rule of blending. From Bordeaux, the grape is soft and delicate with a crisp, fresh style. It lacks the bite that can be found in sauvignon from other regions.
Though a minor player in sweet wine production, this grape brings floral and honey notes to the sweet wine.