Just like haute couture fashion, the popularity of specific wine styles trends along with contemporary palate preferences. One thing remains steadfast, however, in that terroir makes a difference.
Take, for instance, a true red Bordeaux wine as compared to a California wine made with the same grape varieties. Red Bordeaux wines, made for centuries with a blend of grapes from the Bordeaux region of France, displays nature’s gifts in its deep plum sip. Wines made with grapes from the left bank of the Gironde Estuary tend to be Cabernet Sauvignon based, like those from Pauillac, Medoc, and Saint-Estephe, while wines made with grapes from the right bank, such as St. Emilion and Pomerol, contain mostly Merlot. Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot are also often found in the Bordeaux blends.
With an alcohol content of 12.5 percent, and lush ripe flavors of black fruit, Bordeaux tannins can be sharp when the wine is young. With some time in the bottle, this exquisitely made wine often presents sumptuous sipping rewards.
White Bordeaux wines are blends of Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle, with some including Colombard and Ugni grape varieties. Made in either a creamy, dry style, or one that’s sweet and fruity, white wines from the Bordeaux region can be as incredibly desirable as its reds.
Bordeaux is a prestigious name for a wine to display. As such, there are plenty of imitations using the same grapes in similarly blended wines with wildly different outcomes. Meritage, the name for Bordeaux-style wines blended with at least three of the five grapes grown in Bordeaux, is a copy-cat red blend that can be made into wine from grapes grown anywhere in the world outside of Bordeaux. California is a big player in that league, providing Meritage wines at price points that average between $40 to $100 bottles, with many above that range.
Oddly enough, claret is the name given in the 14th century to clear wines mixed with honey and spice. Originally derived from the French word “cler”, meaning “clear”, the English began to use the term in the 1700s to describe red wines from Bordeaux. Some sources indicate the term was used to avoid affiliation with France during times of political disagreement. Today the term is rarely used in modern French.
There is a significant difference that sets Bordeaux wines apart. In a word, terroir. Nature can deliver harsh seasons to Bordeaux, often challenging the grapes to ripen before October. Bordeaux’s cool to moderate temperatures and sparse, calcareous, well-drained gravel, limestone, and clay soils keep the grapes on the edge, often challenging them to ripen before October. That combination of earth, sun, and temperature, in addition to wind and rainfall, gives Bordeaux grapes their special character and lower alcohol content. Simply put, Bordeaux vines work hard. The same is true of the Sauvingnon Blanc and Semillon grapes used in white Bordeaux, yet exquisite Haut-Brion vintages continue to prove valuable.
California, like many other wine growing regions around the globe that produce Bordeaux-style wines, gives the grapes plenty of warmth, sunshine, and fertile, alluvial, loam-loaded soil, easily allowing them to grow and ripen by August. The comparatively lush life these grapes live produces wine with a higher alcohol content of about 13.5 percent, and a dark, saturated red color with blue highlights. Flush with friendly tannins, these wines are ready to sip much sooner than those from Bordeaux.
White or red, made with the same grapes, the Bordeaux and California red blends in Bordeaux-style wines present two distinct options for discerning palates. Vive la difference!