Bordeaux-style blends – really the best?

Some 26 years ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Paul Pontallier, then Technical Director of Bordeaux First Growth, Chateau Margaux (he very sadly died, far too young, a few weeks ago). At the time, he consulted to Plaisir de Merle, the Distell property on the Paarl side of the Simonsberg.
Ch Margaux

I often turn to this interview, as so much of what Pontallier said then is still apposite today. It’s useful to repeat two of the many important points he made as an introduction to my thoughts on where we stand those 26 years down the line.

On the role of the main Bordeaux red varieties. ‘We produce these varieties under our own specific conditions – they’re not just cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit verdot and cabernet franc. Wine is not just the result of a variety. It is a type of grape grown under very specific conditions.’ ‘.. [A]s far as blends are concerned it’s important to understand that blending is a philosophy more than a recipe.’

Bordeaux and its red wines, especially those which fall under the 1855 classification, are seen as the most prestigious wines in the world; without such influence, would the annual en primeur campaign still be a thing?

Its prestige has seen this blend replicated worldwide, generally as the pinnacle of a producer’s range. In this role, it has to be impressive, stand out, which in South Africa’s case (and others) means more of everything – ripe fruit (resulting in higher alcohols as new, virus-free vines comes on stream), extraction of colour and tannins, all embellished with lashings of new, small oak barrels.

Pontallier on oak: ‘Using small, new oak for just any kind of wine is a bad idea. .. We barrel-age wines not to give them oaky flavours, but to allow them to go through the necessary changes in order to acquire the potential to be bottled-aged for many more years. That’s THE reason for the small barrel.’

Naturally, these wines came with a suitably impressive price tag too, just to emphasise how special they were – for a brief moment in time. So many didn’t last more than a couple of years, let alone Pontallier’s ‘many more years’, as they lacked the specifics – variety, conditions, vinification – for such purpose.

The passing of time, maturing of new, clean vine material but, mostly, the better understanding by more mature winemakers are being realised in wines, from the major Bordeaux varieties, which demonstrate that less is in fact more. There are provisos, but let me share the good news first.

I have rarely tasted through a lineup of Bordeaux-style blends where a display of natural distinction, a sense of belonging, is more evident than in the 13 wines which climbed to the top of the points ladder (90 and over) on this year’s Riscura Red Hot Awards. Less was definitely more: less over-ripeness, less over-extraction and less over-oaking.

None was under 14% alcohol but there was a sense of balance, with sufficient freshness to offset the ripe fruit. In Chairman of the panel, Christian Eedes’ report, he does say that achieving power with freshness remains an issue, one aggravated by sumptuous fruit and soft tannins which allow for consumers’ preferred earlier, easier drinking. But on the whole, the wines they’ve singled out (and some others which didn’t quite hit the 90 point mark) have the hallmarks of a structure designed to age. Other panel members were Eedes’ regular judging partners, Roland Peens and James Pietersen, both of Wine Cellar.
Few wines were aged in 100% new oak and, although it was rarely declared, my guess is not all were 225 litre barriques; winemakers are appreciating that larger and oak into its 2nd, 3rd and even 4th fill can provide excellent results.

Better too is the understanding of harvesting times. Cabernet, as a generally late ripener, can suffer from both early winter rains and prolonged heatwaves, especially in virused vines, when sufficient ripeness isn’t achieved. But as the list below shows, vintages spanned 2010 to 2014; neither 2011 nor 2014 are regarded as good cabernet years in particular.

Dombeya Fenix 2011 scored 91 points on Riscura Red Hot Awards. Photo courtesy of Hennie Coetzee
Dombeya Fenix 2011 scored 91 points on Riscura Red Hot Awards.
Photo courtesy of Hennie Coetzee

I’d particularly applaud Ernie Els Signature 2013, Hartenberg The Mackenzie 2012 for their achievements in the ‘less is more’ realm and single out Diemersdal Private Collection 2014, Dombeya Fenix 2013, Mvemve Raats Compostella 2014 and Vriesenhof Kallista 2010 as my favourites.

To the provisos. These 13 wines, and others among the 59 entries (I’d have lifted a few over the 90-point level) are but the tip of the iceberg; leaving aside some big names that presumably didn’t enter, there are a scary number which have some catching up to do.

Then, there are still too many virused vines out there, with a good probability many varieties are not being grown ‘under (the) very specific conditions’ Pontallier specifies they need to give of their best; and it’s still not possible to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.
Sows’ ears were sadly in evidence at a tasting Tim James and I undertook last week of red wines, mainly composed of the Bordeaux varieties and sold under Ultra Liquors Secret Cellar label. Read his report here. Of the dozen reds, eight were from 2014, a couple non-vintage and nine were from or based on Bordeaux varieties. The mint, sweet and sour finish and general thinness associated with stressed vines was clearly in evidence in the Bordeaux-style 14s. Not wines I’d want to drink at any price, even the good value R35+- the Secret Cellar range can offer.

A final, wise word from Pontallier on the opinion that top quality, flagship reds have to be made from Bordeaux varieties. ‘Nonsense. ..At the end of the day, what makes the best wine? .. I think the philosophy of the blend is trying to find varieties which are complementary, not just because it’s the thing to do.’

A thought that deserves consideration as much today as it did then.

RISCURA RED HOT AWARDS
94
Groot Constantia Gouverneurs Reserve Red 2013
93
Ernie Els Signature 2013
Mveme Raats MR de Compostella 2014
92
Delaire Graff Botmaskop 2014
Hartenberg The Mackenzie 2012
Spier Creative Block 5 2013
Vriesenhof Kallista 2010
91
Dombeya Fenix 2011
Eikendal Classique 2014
Uva Mira O.T.V. 2014
90
Creation Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon Petit Verdot 2014
Diemersdal Private Collection 2014
Rustenberg John X Merriman 2013

• Paul Pontallier’s quotes taken from my interview with him and published in The Wine of the Month Club Newsletter No 50

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