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Chinese Bordeaux Guide

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Black Grapes


Chateau Latour is a classic Medoc The wine has power, strength and great ability to age, evolve and last. It's enviable location on a high ground overlooking the Gironde is part of the reason. The gravelly soil is another. Yet another contributor is the high percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon in a Latour wine, up to 78%.


At Chateau Cheval Blanc, the Cabernet Franc holds the key to the wine's great elegance and femininity.


Very exposed Merlot grapes at Chateau Petrus

Story and Photos By Ch'ng Poh Tiong

No one in his right mind would think of making a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon wine in Bordeaux. The drinker would never forgive the winemaker.

The sensation of tough tannins — further accentuated by the high acidity — would be like plunging a vacuum cleaner into your mouth. Your teeth would crumble under the assault and your lips would become so pouted that, should you wish to, you could now do push-ups with your tongue (the same person trying to kiss another human being would be charged with premeditated attack).

Fortunately, the people of Bordeaux are not sadists.

As recently as the beginning of the 18th century, there were about 40 different grape varieties cultivated in Bordeaux. Incredibly, half of them were white. Only at the end of that same century were many of the white varieties uprooted and replaced with black grapes.

The Cabernet Sauvignon, the backbone of so many great Bordeaux wine, made its debut about 300 years ago. It has never looked back and has become practically synonymous with Bordeaux, or at least the Médoc.

The grape is also tough in another regard, namely its stem and branches

Montesquieu, the great philosopher and who was himself also a winegrower in the Graves, referred to the Cabernet Sauvignon as vigne dure or ‘hard vine’.

GREAT STRENGTH

One can therefore say that both in physique and personality, the Cabernet Sauvignon is possessed of great strength.

To be sure, a Cabernet Sauvignon dominated wine comes across decidedly as masculine and full of intense, locked-up power (especially when the wine is young). It brings to mind a restless child, full of pent-up energy, never wanting to stay still. The Cabernet Sauvignon is a little atom.

The wine will also be remarkably fresh, certainly when young but also 10, 20, even at 30 years old. Maybe the Cabernet Sauvignon is to grapes what Chinese men are to the human specie. After all, I often hear friends of other races observe how, ‘Chinese men never age’. (My friends may of course also need their eyes examined).

Time does not rob the Cabernet Sauvignon of the solid back-bone that is one of the hallmarks of this very complex grape. The structure never deserts the wine. Taste a 20, 30, even 40-year old Chateau Latour and you will think that it is a liquid Olympic gymnastics champion, full of poise, stature and firm grip.

The Cabernet Sauvignon is a low-yielding, late-budding (therefore not vulnerable to spring frosts) and late-ripening variety. This aristocratic grape is most at home in the well-drained gravelly soil of the Médoc. The temperate, maritime climate helps stretch out the ripening process during which the grapes slowly but surely accumulate sugars, complex flavours and vital ageing acidity.

The wines are not particularly alcoholic. They have no need to be. Instead they possess a strength gloved in delicateness. Most are usually just 12 or 12.5% in alcohol. Finesse, not heaviness, is what should define a Bordeaux wine.

On the nose, the aroma of Cabernet Sauvignon includes cedarwood, oak, saw-dust, smoke, tobacco, cigar, vanilla, dark chocolate, capsicums, violets, raspberries, black cherries, blackcurrants and cassis. These complex aromas are not only from the grapes but also arise from the fact that the Cabernet Sauvignon is aged in oak.

The top wines of the Médoc spent anywhere from 18 to 24 months in 225-litre barrels that once stood as ramrod oak trees in the Limousin and Nevers forests of France before being bottled.

Just like the Chardonnay grape, the Cabernet Sauvignon has a great affinity with oak; wine and wood happily wrapped in each other like long-separated lovers.

TIME IS THE KEY

The Cabernet Sauvignon is a small grape.  Its deep blue/black skin is also very thick (making it resistant to rot).

This combination of small berries and thick skin means a small ratio of juice to skins which, apart from giving the wine tannins, also impart colouring matter. The Cabernet Sauvignon produces a deep coloured wine. Then there are the pips or seeds which also contain loads of tannins.  The end-result is a dark  wine, full of stuffing, high in acidity, and turbo-charged tannins.

Naturally, time and patience are needed for the aroma, fruit, acidity and tannins to marry and evolve into a harmonious whole.

The wines of the Médoc – including Saint-Estéphe, Pauillac, Saint-Julien, Moulis, Listrac and Margaux – are made up of an average 70 to 75% Cabernet Sauvignon.

To uncork a young bottle – especially a Classified Growth – would be like committing infanticide or throwing money to the wind. You may want to show off that you have the money but people who really understand wine will wonder if you have been consulting your brain, or possess one in the first place.

If it is a First Growth of a great vintage, the absolute bare minimum is 10 years (but then, still wasted); better if it is 15 or 20 years, although of course the wine will have no problem keeping to 25, 30 and more years, when it will be even more glorious.

Nothing saddens me more than to see people opening, and murdering, a great wine when it is still a baby or infant. Why not, I wonder, drink a well-made Cru Bourgeois, even a good generic Médoc instead.

PUT IT BACK

It is my sincere belief that if you are a descendant of a civilisation that has been around for 5,000 continuous years, that you are born with a natural patience. It is in your DNA. Some people of course lose it when they become stockbrokers or big-time businessmen. But patience, unlike innocence, can be recovered. And when you have reclaimed it, please remember that in exercising patience, you actually ‘do’ nothing. So, please put that 10-year-young First Growth back from where it came from.

The wines of the Graves (which, like those of the Médoc, are referred to as the ‘Left Bank’) tend to have a lower proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon than those of its northerly Médoc cousins.

First Growth Chateau Haut-Brion (the only property from outside the Médoc that was included in the 1855 Classification), for example, is usually made up of 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 37% Merlot and 18% Cabernet Franc.

(I say ‘usually’ because although the vineyards are planted to those specific percentages of the three varietals; what is blended together as the final wine is not always of the exact same proportions one vintage to another).

The safe rule to remember about drinking a bordeaux is this. When the percentage of the Cabernet Sauvignon is higher, drink that wine later. The quality of the chateau must of course be taken into consideration too. Also, drink the lighter vintages earlier, the fuller ones later.

Just as you would approach a wine with a higher proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon last, so, if a wine has more Merlot – all other factors being equal – you drink that first.

Why?

Because the Merlot has a thinner skin. The grapes are also bigger. Therefore, the ratio of juice to skin and seeds is higher. The colour of a Merlot wine is not only relatively weaker than that of a Cabernet Sauvignon, the wine is also less tannic and lower in acidity, making it easier to enjoy when young. At the same time, the sugars in the Merlot are also higher, which result in a fleshier, softer, smoother wine.

'BAY WATCH' GIRLS

The Merlot is round and shapely. To better understand this variety, think of it in comparison with the Cabernet Sauvignon. So, for example, with its voluptuous richness, the Merlot is like one of those bouncy ‘Bay Watch’ girls, whereas the more restrained and angular Cabernet Sauvignon reminds of the elegance of Zhang Zi Yi of ‘Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon’ fame or the irreplaceable Audrey Hepburn.

Not many people are aware of this, but the Merlot is the most widely planted in Bordeaux. This higher yielding variety has been established in Pomerol and Saint-Emilion since the 18th century and only appeared — at least as far as records show — in the Médoc in the 19th century.

The Merlot is not a particularly aromatic grape although mint is often detected on the nose. The top wines of Pomerol can, however, be perfumed. The fragrance is of dark chocolate, liquorice, black cherries, ripe plums and that of a smouldering fire (partly, of course, as a result of the wine having  been aged in charred oak barrels). 

Ripening before the Cabernet Franc and the Cabernet Sauvignon, the Merlot is very at home in the richer, clayey and more humid soils of Pomerol and Saint-Emilion, not forgetting also the humbler and sprawling appellations of Cotes de Bourg and Cotes & Premieres Cotes de Blaye.

In fact, very little, if any, Cabernet Sauvignon is grown in Pomerol (Vieux-Chateau-Certan and Chateau Clinet are somewhat extraordinary in that those two Pomerols have up to 10 and 15% respectively of Cabernet Sauvignon in their final wines).

The typical make-up of a Pomerol estate is about 80% Merlot and the balance usually of Cabernet Franc (although, as just mentioned, some chateaux use a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon and, sometimes, even Malbec).

Chateau Pétrus, consistently the finest wine of Pomerol, is unusual in that up to 95% of it is Merlot (the balance 5% is Cabernet Franc). But grapes alone cannot possibly produce a great wine. The secret, like buying a property, is in the location.

Pétrus is in the highest part of Pomerol (already relatively flat in the first place). The top-soil may be of the same clay as that of most of the commune, but underneath that is gravel.

The vines are also very old, rare survivors of the cold snap in 1956.

Being early-budding and early-flowering, the Merlot is exposed to the twin dangers of spring frosts and coulure — uneven fruit set because of some flowers dropping off.

There are actually two or three chateaux in Pomerol that produce wine from 100% Merlot. These wines, like the ‘Baywatch’ girls, are very immediately attractive, even captivating, certainly attention grabbing. But after a few glances and glasses (or just sips actually), I find myself tiring of their up-front fruitiness and heady concentration. Something is missing.

‘Why’, I find myself asking, ‘didn’t they add some Cabernet Franc or Cabernet Sauvignon to lift all that immense body?’

Merlot-driven wines are much easier and enjoyable to drink when young than Cabernet Sauvignon-charged ones. Both varieties respond well to ageing in oak but because the Merlot is higher in sugars, less tannic and lower in acidity, the texture is smoother.

I often think of a Pomerol as a mango juice and a Médoc as an orange juice. One is velvety and the other more crisp.

THE OTHER CABERNET

The Cabernet Franc lives in the shadow of the Cabernet Sauvignon.

There is some literal truth in that because the Franc possesses all the qualities of the Sauvignon but in lesser degree and intensity, like the situation between that of a co-star and the leading actor in a movie.

When you taste one against the other, there is a decided lightness in the Cabernet Franc vis-à-vis the Sauvignon. The former comes across as a ballerina standing next to a jazz dancer. Need I say more, but the Cabernet Franc has great elegance.

The aromas of a Cabernet Franc, although less piercing than those of a Cabernet Sauvignon, can however be very seductive. There are violets and raspberries. If not ripened enough, it can however be a bit weedy and grassy. While the variety also possesses structure, it is less tannic and has less acidity than the Cabernet Sauvignon and can therefore be approached earlier.

Cultivated mostly in the Right Bank — because the variety suits better the richer soil and cooler climate — Cabernet Franc buds and ripens earlier than the Cabernet Sauvignon (but after the Merlot). This variety has been cultivated in Saint-Emilion and Pomerol since the 18th century.

Saint-Emilion puts more stock into the Cabernet Franc than Pomerol. The average is 35%, sometimes 40%, but rarely forming the majority in the blend.

There is however one spectacular exception. And the name of the chateau is very appropriate. Like a graceful white horse, ‘Cheval-Blanc’, which some people regard as the greatest wine in Bordeaux, is made up of 57% Cabernet Franc, 39% Merlot, 3% Malbec, and 1% Cabernet Sauvignon.

To be sure, if you have ever tasted this great wonder, full of feminine charm, it will change your mind about the Cabernet Franc being in the shadow of any other grape.

THE 'SZECHUAN' GRAPE

Although the Petit Verdot is cultivated only in very small amounts (usually in the Médoc), its eclipse, thank goodness, is not complete. Actually, in terms of quality, this is a variety that can contribute added complexity and an added dimension to even an already fine wine.

The Petit Verdot’s main problem is that being the latest ripener (about a week after the Cabernet Sauvignon), it exposes itself to greater risks brought about by inclement weather. The variety is also sensitive to drought and rot. Wine production, like any other business, it must be remembered, does not like entertaining unnecessary uncertainty.

Spicy, peppery and with a certain sweetness on the edge, the Petit Verdot should be nicknamed the ‘Szechuan’ grape.

I find it perhaps the most delicious of the four grapes to eat on its own. Not to mention that a little bit of Petit Verdot can also do a ‘grand’ lot for the wine.


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All Rights Reserved · The Wine Review · 2013
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