Can we talk about Bordeaux-style Wine?

It’s not something a winemaker can put on a label. The word Bordeaux can only be used for wine made in a certain way, to a certain standard, from grapes grown in Bordeaux, France (as opposed to Bordeaux, Wyoming). But wine writers and wine sellers use the term all the time. It’s not just Bordeaux, of course, they talk about Burgundy-style, Beaujolais-style, even New Zealand Sauvignon-style. The French, of course, say it’s nonsense, that the wines of Bordeaux are unique and that a wine is either a Bordeaux or not, and any wine from elsewhere, even if made with the same grape varieties using the same methods of viniculture, will taste so different that it should be called something different. I have a lot of sympathy with the French view.

But is there any evidence that they are right?

The perfect example of what happens when you try to make Bordeaux outside Bordeaux is my hero, the late Aimé Guibert, a retired glove-maker who bought an abandoned farmhouse in 1971 near Aniane in the Languedoc. Emile Peynaud, the great Bordeaux oenologist, happened to be a friend of a friend, and he commented on the suitability of the hillside for winemaking in the Bordeaux style, given that the soil was gravelly clay and silt, not unlike the Médoc. So Guibert planted Cabernet Sauvignon with a little Merlot and some other varieties and by 1982 was making superb purple-black wine with an intense blackberry flavour with hints of tar and spice. It didn’t taste like Bordeaux, however. It completely lacked the smokiness that Cabernet Sauvignon gives to wine in Bordeaux (others call it cedar wood, or cigar box or pencil sharpenings, but I think we are all describing the same thing).

Aimé Guibert in the original Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard Mas de Daumas Gassac
in the high Gassac Valley near Aniane, Hérault, France.

Years later Guibert commented that he shouldn’t have tried to imitate Bordeaux. He should have used the local grapes (Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Carignan and Cinsault). He thinks the reason that his wine was much better than anyone else’s locally was that he used modern wine-making methods, including maturation in oak barrels. And indeed, others followed his example, but using local grape varieties, and are now making wine at least as good as his.

Was this a one-off or will every attempt to make Bordeaux-style wine outside Bordeaux fail? To explore this I bought two wines (from Marks & Spencer as it happens) that had scored 95 out of 100 points in the Decanter World Wine Awards 2017. One was top of the ‘Best Value Australian Red Bordeaux Varietals’; the other was top of the ‘Best Value New Zealand Red Bordeaux Varietals’. The Oz version was pure Cabernet Sauvignon; the Kiwi version was a Merlot/Cabernet Franc blend. Both are tremendous wines, full of dark fruit flavours with great balance and power. But neither of them tastes like a Bordeaux, any more than Guibert’s did.

So let’s drop the term Bordeaux-style for wines not from Bordeaux and talk about wine aged in oak with the taste of rich dark fruits with noticeable tannin. Then we’ll know what to expect.

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