Bordeaux is the most famous wine in the world.
Thomas Jefferson wrote enthusiastically about his five-day tour of the Bordeaux region southwest of Paris in 1787, even if he didn’t always spell the wine’s names correctly. When Richard Nixon entertained Congress members aboard the presidential yacht Sequoia, he was known to serve his guests a pretty good $6 wine while stewards filled his glass from a $30 bottle of Bordeaux wrapped in a towel.
Bordeaux makers should be good at their craft. They’ve been making it the Romans arrived in 60 B.C.
Bordeaux is created under strict rules. Under French wine law, it must contain two more of the following grapes: cabernet sauvignon for power, merlot for soft, sweet fruit, petit verdot for spice, cabernet franc for flowery aroma and malbec for its inky black hue. No other grapes are allowed. Most Bordeaux wines are predominately cabernet sauvignon or merlot.
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So it’s not surprising that American winemakers, running nearly two millennia behind the French, today use Bordeaux as a reference point. Some seek to emulate it. Some to modify it. Some purposely riff away from it.
The closest American emulators are those in the Meritage Alliance, a group of over 300 wineries that vow to use at least some of their grape crop in “exceptional wines blended in the Bordeaux tradition” – using at least two of the five “noble” Bordeaux grapes – and with no other grapes.
Not all foodies and wine fans are aware of this idea, and even gourmet restaurant wine lists often call wines “meritage” when they aren’t, and don’t call wines “meritage” when they are. (For a list of alliance members go to www.meritagealliance.com.)
Others American winemakers are less interested in the Bordeaux rules, so they use some of the Bordeaux-style grapes, but add other, non-Bordeaux grapes – maybe syrah for extra fruit and spice, or petite sirah for extra color and tannic structure, or even zinfandel for heartiness.
When American winemakers use at least 75 percent cabernet sauvignon in their Bordeaux-inspired wines, they can call them cabernet sauvignon. If they use less, they usually call them “red blends” – but they still pay homage to the Bordeaux idea that blended wines are better than single-variety wines.
Wine fans can see this two ways: Either blended wines are greater than the sum of their parts, or the addition of soft, sweet merlot can ease the tannic acidity of the cabernet sauvignon.
Either way, they turn out some marvelous wines.
2012 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, Calif. (82 percent cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent merlot, 8 percent cabernet franc): aromas of cedar and oak, flavors of black cherries and black coffee, full body, hearty, smooth finish; $48.
2013 Kunde Family Winery Meritage 202, Sonoma Valley, Calif. (46 percent merlot, 28 percent cabernet sauvignon, 12 percent petit verdot, 11 percent merlot, and 3 percent cabernet franc): intensely fruity aromas and flavors of black plums, chocolate and red berries, big, ripe tannins, smooth finish; $35.
2012 Gamble Family Vineyards “Paramount Red Wine,” Napa Valley (33 percent cabernet sauvignon, 32 percent cabernet franc, 30 percent merlot, 5 percent petit verdot): deep, dark hue, medium body, aromas and flavors of black cherries, bitter chocolate, tobacco and herbs; $90.
2013 Fortress Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County (83 percent cabernet sauvignon, 8 percent petit verdot, 5 percent cabernet franc, 2 percent syrah, 2 percent merlot): aromas and flavors of baked plums, milk chocolate and spice, smooth finish; $25.
2011 Mount Veeder Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley (81 percent cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent merlot, 4 percent malbec, 3 percent petit verdot, 1 percent cabernet franc, 1 percent syrah): hint of toasted oak, aromas and flavors of licorice, black plums and bitter chocolate, full body, smooth finish; $44.
2014 Carnivor Cabernet Sauvignon, California, (87 percent cabernet sauvignon, 11 percent petite sirah, 2 percent merlot): deep, dark hue, hint of oak, aromas and flavors of black raspberries, black coffee, firm tannins, long finish; $15.
2014 “Barbed Wire” Red Blend “Winemaker’s Reserve,” by Trinchero Family Estates, North Coast, California (65 percent cabernet sauvignon, 35 percent merlot): aromas and flavors of black raspberries and herbs, smooth and rich; $12.
2013 Matanzas Creek Merlot, Sonoma County (98 percent merlot, 2 percent cabernet sauvignon): hint of oak, aromas and flavors of black cherries and black pepper, firm tannins, smooth finish; $28.
2013 “50 Harvests” Meritage, from the Scotto Family’s Steele Canyon Cellars, Napa Valley (75 percent cabernet sauvignon, 13 percent merlot, 12 percent cabernet franc): deep purple hue, hint of oak, floral aromas, flavors of black cherries, black pepper and minerals, smooth tannins, long finish; $50.
2012 Murphy-Goode “All In Claret,” Alexander Valley, Sonoma County (54 percent cabernet sauvignon, 42 percent merlot, 4 percent petit verdot): hint of oak, aromas of licorice and vanilla, flavors of black plums and herbs, full-bodied and smooth; $24.