As a sommelier in a steakhouse, I hear much commentary about red blends, but it seems as though there is a lot of confusion surrounding this style of wine and its various manifestations. The first thing to consider is that most red wines are blended in some percentage. In California, for example, in order to be labeled as "Cabernet Sauvignon," only 75% of the grapes officially need to be that varietal. Granted, there are many famous styles of red blends from around the world, but for this particular piece, let's focus on those Bordeaux in style.
What's the difference between all these blends — and how does that affect how you shop for wine?
Bordeaux is a region in the southwest corner of France, where a blended wine style was created and has subsequently been copied by numerous regions around the world. A specific set of geological circumstances, as well as an unpredictable climate within the Bordeaux region, led to a style of winemaking based around blending. The vineyard managers planted grapes that matured at different times, in order to "hedge their bets," assuring that the best wine would be made, despite any seasonal challenges. Since then, many other wine-producing regions around the world have adopted Bordeaux-style blending.
Bordeaux from France
The red varietals permitted in Bordeaux are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, and Carmenere. The Gironde estuary runs through the heart of the region: the wines from the "left bank" are traditionally Cabernet Sauvignon-based, and the wines from the "right bank" are traditionally Merlot-based.
Meritage from California
In response to the limitations of California wine labeling laws, a group of winemakers formed the Meritage Alliance as a means to bottle blended wines, without calling them "California Table Wine." Only wineries who are members of the Alliance may label their wines as a Meritage (rhymes with "heritage"). It must be one of the winery's top tier bottlings and must be made from only Bordeaux grape varietals.
Super Tuscan from Italy
Italian winemakers also desired to break free from the strictures of their country's rigid wine laws, planting non-traditional grapes and using alternative techniques. Although most commonly from the coastal region of Bolgheri, these wines may come from anywhere in Tuscany. Winemakers may use Bordeaux varietals, but they are also permitted to use Syrah, Sangiovese, or others. Although there are no rules regarding which grapes comprise each bottle, some of Italy's finest wines come from this region.
Claret from Anywhere
Originally a British term for the rich, red wines of Bordeaux, claret has crossed the ocean and may now refer to any wine made in the Bordeaux style.
How to Apply When Shopping for Wine
Just remember that the next time you are sipping a Bordeaux, it may be mostly Merlot. Or your next Super Tuscan might be 100% Syrah. Take the extra time to find out the leading grape in your favorite red blend. You will often be surprised at the results, and they will help you understand what you like and how to find more of it.
What are some of your favorite Bordeaux-style reds, and what do you enjoy serving with them?
(Image credits: Jayme Henderson; Faith Durand)