American wine people love to pronounce French words—especially those that they actually can pronounce.
That’s why they’re always talking about lieu-dit, cépage and egrappage when they could be talking about ‘vineyard’, ‘kind of grape’ and ‘yanking the friggin’ stems off’.
With en primeur, the water gets a little murky. During the spring following harvest, wine merchants gather in Bordeaux (there are also Burgundy, Rhône Valley and Port en primeurs; different times, different places) to gauge the previous year’s vintage quality via barrel samples, and subsequently, to make purchases based in part on preliminary scores made by field experts Tim Atkin, Jancis Robinson, RPJ and similarly panegyrized grape groupies.
Of course, they could refer to en primeur as ‘wine futures’ but where’s the Francophilian fun in that?
Scholarly Scribery is One Thing; Pronunciating is Another
The problem that here arises is that the term ‘en primeur’ is beyond the verbal sleight of your average dipthongy, alveolary, stress-timedy practitioner of the King’s good English—especially the ‘r’ part.
Our throats simply have not evolved to accommodate such sounds unless we’re spitting out phlegm or choking on a French Dip sandwich, and of course, mangling a foreign word while trying to look smart and sophisticated is far worse than a shrug of total self-confident American ignorance.
Nonetheless, wine writers are expected to drool all over en primeur stories since it is ‘that time of year again’ in Bordeaux.
Not only that, but the good ones are supposed to actually attend it. By good one, I mean, of course, critics who either live in France or have trade affiliations or bosses willing to fund the trip.
Me, I’m constantly at risk of being fired for writing about wine instead doing the job I’m actually paid to do, so on my expense report, a round-trip ticket to Paris (another word Americans can’t pronounce) and accommodations at the P’tit Dej-Hotel Bordeaux Lac (choke on that one, Billy Bob) is not likely to go over well.
So, I am forced to take another route: Plodding through the painfully prosaic, prolixly platitudinous prose of press peers, editing the same so adroitly that their words pass as my own.
EN PRIMEUR 2012 SUMMARY:
Hard to tell. Some is good, some is bad.
Recommendation: Either buy or don’t buy depending on your personal inclination.
Alrighty, then: Here’s something Bordeauxish that you might actually find useful: A two-part look at the legally allowable grapes of that hallowed region.
RED WINE GRAPES
It’s an old joke: ‘Tell somebody there’s ten thousand stars in the sky, he’ll take your word for it. Put up a ‘Wet Paint’ sign, he’ll have to find out for himself.’
Likewise, wine grapes. I wrote a column recently suggesting that appellation law allows five red wine grapes in Bordeaux—cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot—and was instantly assailed by wine writers wiser than moi and reminded that there are actually six. I had, of course, omitted carménère, a grape grandpèred in to appease major fifth-growth players like Château Clerc-Milon, whose 14,000 cases per year contain about one percent of this strange, loamy, smoky fruit. Now, I can’t imagine how 1% of anything short of anthrax spores could overly influence a bottle of wine, but if the good folks at Clerc-Milon feel that their single acre of carménère is worth making me look like a total tête merde on my own website in front of literally dozens of readers, I wish upon their French fannies an Exodus 8: 1 – 4: A plague of frogs.
Real ones, too—not their next door neighbors.
The purpose of the opening joke, of course, was to illustrate that if I had instead chosen to write about the hundred varietals legally permitted in Sherry prior to the phylloxera infestation of 1894, not one of these sad-sack sack scholars would have been able to tell me what they were. Hell, let’s be honest: Most of them couldn’t have told me what three are allowed today without a Google grape grope.
The point is, when wines are blended—and to some extent nearly all are—it’s for a reason, and it’s often good wine education to learn why one ‘auxiliary’ grape is preferred over another. It can be tradition, price, final acidity, alcohol or tannin—or all the above—but every winemaker except the most cynical is after a certain positive synergy of juice weights, flavors and aromatics.
A vivisection of Bordeaux’s sanctified sextet offers an overview of why these particular blends may in fact be the paradigm of wine-world solidarność.
Cabernet Sauvignon: Not the most widely planted grape in Bordeaux nor the easiest to ripen, cabernet sauvignon wears the appellation’s kingly crown nonetheless—perhaps because of the six nobles, it’s the most reliable in terms of varietal integrity—cab-based wines are instantly recognizable for their brooding but elegant crush of blackberry, currant and dark cherry tastes. Certainly, the grape lends itself to Bordeaux’s deepest, most potent bottlings, and non-fruit descriptors often include tobacco and cedar, and, when pyrazine linger in less than fully-ripened clusters, an unmistakable note of bell pepper and green olives. Strangely, though the scent of eucalyptus is often noted in cabernets grown near eucalyptus groves, no connection has yet been found to explain it. These days, it’s easier to explain cab’s origin: It is not, as previously believed, a particularly ancient varietal (Pliny’s ‘biturica’ winds up being closer to carménère), but 1996 DNA testing proved that it is a relatively recent cross between cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc, neither of which it conspicuously resembles—like if Obama’s biracial parents had produced Sandra Oh.
Merlot: Speaking of Sandra Oh, I would miss no opportunity to rub terroir in the face of urban mythologists: Following Sideways, any change in merlot sales were too negligible to notice. And not only that, but, screw Miles anyway—in its most perfect prosopopeia, merlot turns cabernet’s elegance into juicy-fruit splendiferousness. Upon the right bank of the Gironde estuary (looking downstream, toward the sea), merlot has found a viticultural Valhalla; the ferrous clay subsoil, unlike the left bank’s gravel and limestone, retains moisture, and in the appellations of Saint-Émilion and Pomerol, merlot-based wines burst with velvety plum, chocolatey cherry and all the intensity of the fruit cake spectrum—without the astringency often associated with cabernet. With 172,000 acres under tillage (compared to 72,000 for cabernet sauvignon), merlot is by far the most prolific grape in Bordeaux. Named for it color companion the blackbird (merle in French, and in Latin, hilariously, turdus merula), the cultivar appears to have originated in Italy, where it still produces good, but not spectacular wines.
Cabernet Franc: When merlot is not the danseur noble, it’s often used as a softening agent for cabernet sauvignon, but when it takes the lead, it prefers a pas de deux with cabernet franc, which shares its affinity for cooler, heavier Right Bank soils. Characteristically lighter than its scion cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc’s reputation is built upon its fusion finesse, adding aromatics—typically, floral scents like violets, rose petals and white blossoms—and tart red fruit flavors like raspberry and pie cherries. Although an argument could be made that cab franc’s true glory-hole is not in Bordeaux but in the Loire (or the Finger Lakes of New York, in Canadian ice wine or in the terra rossa of Croatia’s Savudrija peninsula), you’d still have to explain Château Cheval Blanc—the Premier Grand Cru Classé Saint-Émilion which is mostly cabernet franc.
Petit Verdot: Compared to new kid on the block cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot is a thick-skinned, late-ripening, long-suffering squatter. Scant good it’s done them: So much more reliably does cab ripen that most of the old petit verdot plots have been torn out and planted to its more reliable consorts—today, less than a thousand acres of petit verdot remain, nearly all in the Médoc, where it’s used to ‘stiffen’ Left Bank blends. As a stand-alone varietal, petit verdot is meh³, tannic and sour; it does its best work in Margaux, where in Troisième Cru Château Palmer it may compose up to a tenth of the blend. In California, however, it strikes the Forty Niners’ mother lode, and today is the single most expensive varietal you can buy by the ton.
Malbec: This inky, scowling, dark-skinned grape has hop-scotched around France like an Armée de Terre brat, using more pseudonyms than Prince; nearly a thousand malbec monikers have been recorded by ampelographer Pierre Galet. Called côt noir in the southwest (where it is responsible for the famed ‘Black Wine of Cahors’), auxerroix in Burgundy and The Grape Formerly Known As Pressac in Bordeaux, other synonyms include mouranne, medoc noir, vesparo, jacobain and estrangey—though, estrangely, malbec argenté is not malbec, but a variety of the grape abouriou. Better suited to the cooler, dryer, high-altitude climate of Argentina, malbec is now the most widely grown varietal in that country, with more than 61,000 acres currently under cultivation. In France, where it produces a richly tannic blend of boysenberry, brown spice, leather and pomegranate flavors, plantings have dwindled to a few hundred acres.
Carménère: And then there’s this: A crappy little reminder that I know less about wine than I pretend to. And as suits such a buzz-killer, carménère can be gamey, tarry, vegetal and quite prepared to go all Philippe Pétain
with the white-flag when faced with an invading army; in this case, sap-sucking aphids. Annihilated in the same phylloxera epidemic that whittled down the Sherry varietals, carménère was slated for resurrection with the other noble grapes of Bordeaux, but proved by far the most difficult, and today, as it fades to oblivion in Bordeaux, it’s found new life in Chile, where it was, until DNA proved otherwise, thought to be merlot. There, it serves its original purpose, being used primarily to blend in color and smoky overtones to Bordeaux-style cab/merlot blends.
WHITE WINE GRAPES
It ain’t all resveratrol down here on the Reservation, kids, and as late as the 1960s, the most widely planted grape in Bordeaux was lily-white sémillon.
Likewise, the Detroit neighborhood where my folks bought their first house in the sixties was also white—Pillsbury Dough Boy white, if you must know. And it remained that way until urban blight, race riots and a bit more pelf in the status quo tiller sort of tilted the city sideways—and my parents, along with about half a million other Caucasians, slithered to the suburbs.
In Bordeaux, the change was more horticultural than cultural. Some of it can be traced to 1963—the year that Martin Luther King led 150,000 Detroiters on the ‘March For Freedom’—when châteaux tried to come to terms with a poor vintage in the wake of the great frost of 1956 which destroyed many red wine vines. 60% of Bordeaux’s 1963 output was white, which meant that the estates only had a few years to sell the majority of their half-assed wines before they began to deteriorate.
This wake-up call, along with improved technology, saw a lot of Bordelaise vineyards replanted with more cold-resistent red varietals like cabernet sauvignon and merlot, and today, the region’s red wine production is nearly ninety percent of the total. The subject of white Bordeaux is almost an afterthought as the typical non-industry person’s ‘free association’ image of Bordeaux is of heavy, pricey, cellar-seekers like Lafite Rothschild, Latour and Haut-Brion.
Sémillon: Sauternes is the exception that proves the rule—succulent, sweet , rot-rich Sauternes, is generally sémillon-based; arguably the most age-worthy white wine on the planet—bottles that might have graced Thomas Jefferson’s cellar are still alive today. Of course, the most widely heralded name in the appellation is Château d’Yquem, the only white wine deemed worthy of Premier Cru Supérieur status in the 1855 Bordeaux classification.
D’Yquem’s ability not only to last, but to develop strata of complex and unique overtones as it does is due, in no small measure, to fungus—specifically botrytis cinerea, called Edelfäule in Germany and muffa nobile by the Italians. Gray fungus infections begin with damp weather during véraison—a viticultural term meaning ‘the onset of ripening’—and if the weather doesn’t clear up by harvest, this necrotrophic nightmare can destroy the crop: Nine vintages in the 20th Century were deemed unworthy of bearing the d’Yquem name. Usually, however, a period drying out allows botrytis cinerea to develop, causing the grapes to raisinate, concentrating the sugars and producing a wine of almost ethereal intensity and depth. Familiar flavors that emerge after a decade or so of aging are crème brûlée, orange marmalade, caramel and honeysuckle.
Most grapes are susceptible to botrytis (strawberries, too-when they get moldy in the refrigerator, that’s what it is), but sémillon is particularly so as its thin skin allow the easy permeation of spores. It is, however, a multi-faced grape that gets flabby in hot climates, and requires a cool weather face-slap every night or so to remain sharp and focused. In Bordeaux, it receives this sort of treatment, as it does in Chile, which has more acres planted to sémillon than anywhere else on earth. In South Africa, amid more white/non-white issues than either Bordeaux or Detroit, it was once the most abundant varietal, although today, it only makes up about 1% of vineyards; by contrast, 9.6% of the population is white. Australia is another zone which has embraced sémillon, and in the Hunter Valley , where it was once referred to as ‘riesling’, it produces a racy, toasty, citrus-soaked wine that can outpace the best of the dry sémillons from Pessac-Léognan, Graves and Entre-Deux-Mers. In California, it’s sort of stuck at the ‘getting to know you’ stage, but Washington has had some success with late harvest and ice wine versions.
The common denominator in most of these regions, including Sauternes and Barsac, is a reliance on the acid-retention skills of sauvignon blanc to liven up the sémillon shindig.
Sauvignon Blanc: Unlike the Loire—the ancestral seat of sauvignon blanc’s best French interpretation—as a stand-alone wine in Bordeaux, sauvignon blanc is pretty much nonexistent; Château Couhins-Lurton and Pavillon Blanc de Chateau Margaux are rare examples. Most of the biggest and brightest stars like Graves’ Château Smith Haut-Lafitte (selling for $80+ per bottle) blend in about five percent sémillon and another 5% of what, in Smith Haut-Lafitte’s case they call ‘a secret weapon’—a nearly forgotten varietal called sauvignon gris, helping to round out a crisp palate of gooseberries, star fruit, and lemongrass. For the most part, sauvignon blanc prefers the compact chalk and marl soils found around the Loire River, where it results in wines of depth and elegance and frequently displays notes of hay, nettle and lime. In Bordeaux, sauvignon blanc tends to showcase stone fruits like peach and apricot along with floral and woody aromas.Muscadelle: The only other grape of any real significance in white Bordeaux blends is muscadelle, named for its resemblance to, but not its relation to the more familiar varietal muscat. Like its sister grapes, muscadelle plantings have steadily decreased over the decades, with the only about two thousand acres remaining, mostly in the Entre-Deux-Mers. Most of the top whites from Bordeaux use less than 3% muscadelle in their blends, with one noted exception: Château Pape Clément Blanc, listed among the Grands Crus Classé of Graves and currently selling for a shade under $200 a fifth—it’s around 10% muscadelle. For a real feel for what this grape contributes to a bottle, you’ll need to travel a bit further south to Dordogne, where in the small AOC of Monbazillacthere exists a muscadelle-based dessert wine that is a nice, lighter foil to the unctuous wines of Sauternes and Barsac.
The other grapes legally allowed for white Bordeaux are nothing more than ‘also rans’ and appear in such negligible quantities that they scarcely rate mention. Ugni blanc and colombard produce wines that are thin and acidic and are best used as a base for distilling Cognac; merlot blanc, a cross between merlot and folle blanche, is basic blah—better, if only slightly, in nearby Blaye, Bourg and Fronsac. Odenc was once fairly popular throughout Bordeaux, but is now restricted to Gaillac and the AOCs of Bergerac, Côtes de Duras and Montravel. Mausac brings up the Bordeaux rear, although in Limoux—a subprefecture of Languedoc—makes a quaffable sparkling wine.
Ironically, although it’s less represented in production numbers and reviewer pixels than its red-skinned brothers, most of the scientific progress over the past couple of decades has been in improving white Bordeaux—a new French paradox? There may, as a result, be a revived interest in planting white wine grapes here, just as a reverse ‘white flight’ has seen the children and grandchildren of those who fled in the Detroit Diaspora gentrify ghettos lofts and riverfront properties.
Here’s to the future, right?—let’s raise a glass of Carbonnieux and toast Clint Eastwood.
This would conclude today’s broadcast of allowable Bordeaux varietals if it wasn’t for the slightly inconvenient truth that the neighborhood has been integrated since the Romans were playing Occupy Saint-Émilion in the Second Century.
As for me, I’m off to catch up on the next round of en primeur blogs. That or a read few hundred billion more pages of Silas Marner—it’s nearly bedtime.