Blending is an art form and remains rarely understood amongst us normal wine enthusiasts. The more one thinks about the process and the many variables the more difficult it seems to contemplate. The choices seem endless and the more one tastes the more confusing it seems to get! How can you tell that a certain combination is better than another? How do you know how much is too much of one cuvee and what is missing in another?
It was only during our latest ‘Bordeaux Safari’ trip around Bordeaux that a masterclass with Stephanie Danglade (winemaker) gave us real insight into the process and the first inkling into how to approach the art. In the magnificent tasting room of Chateau Pichon Lalande (overlooking the vineyards of Chateau Latour and beyond that the River Gironde) under the guidance of Stephanie I have never learnt so much in the art of tasting let alone blending than in those few hours. Writing tasting notes are difficult at the best of times but when blending, it is not necessarily the fruit descriptions one is looking for.
Our first attempt at distinguishing what is the best quality of Cabernet Sauvignon from two different plots was met with abject failure and it was only through Stephanie explaining that one has to identify the shape in the mouth the wine takes that can help distinguish the qualities they are looking for in the blend. I know shapes in the mouth seems a bit abstract but I really understood what she meant and it started to become a much more accurate approach to distinguishing the affect the wine has on the palate. Blend 1 was the quality blend and the shape in the mouth was an even broadening and lifting on the palate. This is associated with the intensity and breadth the wine has a blending component giving the wine that all important Cabernet structure. Blend 2 in comparison had that immediate fruity juiciness at the beginning (seducing us into picking it) but its evolution in terms of shape just dropped on the palate which as a blending component will provide a lighter, shorter less structured wine.
The next main blending component was the Merlot varietal and similarly it is the texture and tannin that is most important at the blending phase as opposed to the aromas and seductive primary fruit flavours. With the Merlot it was important to produce the blend with the most harmonious tannins and again the deeper understanding of this came through shapes thrown in the mouth. Stephanie describes tannins as like electrostatically charged interconnected marbles on the tongue. The best tannins are ones that feel like tiny marbles all knitted together that create a harmonious blanket covering the tongue. In comparison the more aggressive tannins feel like larger marbles on the tongue and don’t move in unison and feel aggressive in the mouth. With this visualization of shapes, we were slowly getting the hang of it.
Then the final two varietals to be added are known as the seasoning components, with Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot seen as the salt and pepper of the blend. Cabernet Franc brings perfumed aromas and crunchy refreshing acidity. The Petit Verdot is even more perfumed and deep in colour (almost opaque) as well as tannic. Blending these components require a light touch and it was amazing how much the total blend transformed with just 2 – 5% of the blend made up of these varieties. Finally the pressed wines add more structure and colour (with higher tannin density). Again it is a trial and error approach and …and her team spend two weeks trialling thousands of alternate blends before reaching the final finished cuvee. Their knowledge of each of the individual plots, the characteristics how each of the varietals behaves and how well they work together is something that takes years to master. To taste the latest 2017 vintage in it various components and then to taste it in its final form is a fascinating experience and an amazing lesson in tasting wine. The 2017 Chateau Pichon Lalande is a brilliant result and all the better as a blend.
To read more about our adventures from the Bordeaux Safari click here…
If you are interested in the next Bordeaux Safari (November 2018) click here…