ALOT of elements must come together to make a great wine. Top quality fruit is essential, but that’s only possible if a vineyard is grown on the right soil, with the right amount of warmth, sunshine and rainfall.
Winemaking must be meticulous. And throughout the whole process, rigorous selection is indispensable.
Wine grown on different plots in the vineyard will always taste different. Small differences in the age and health of the vines, the soil structure and the orientation of the vine to the all-important sun all affect the quality of the finished wine.
If several different grape varieties are grown in the vineyard, the winemaking team must also decide what proportion of each should be used in each wine. It’s often the case that one variety will perform markedly better in one year than another, for all sorts of reasons, mainly related to the unique growing conditions of each season.
In Bordeaux and other regions where fine red wine is almost always a blend of varieties, the blend or ‘assemblage’ is a vital, final step in deciding the character and quality of the wine made each year. And it’s never quite the same.
When it comes to blending a wine worthy to be sold under the label of a famous estate or château, some vats will usually be rejected, or perhaps set aside to make a cheaper, ‘second’ wine.
Last month I had the privilege of gaining a unique perspective on this process, when I was invited to one of the top estates in Pomerol, where some of the very best red Bordeaux wine is grown, to try my hand at blending.
Château Petit-Village is not a large estate. It has 10.5 hectares of vines, but still comprises 17 different plots of vines each with their own character. Typical of Pomerol, the main grape variety is Merlot, but there is also a significant amount of Cabernet Franc and especially, Cabernet Sauvignon.
My visit was with four colleagues who are attempting, like me, to become Masters of Wine. We were welcomed by Daniel Llose, a distinguished wine-scientist, who’s technical director of the superb group of wine estates that belong to the French insurance giant AXA.
We began our tasting by familiarising ourselves with the flavours and character of each of the three main grape varieties, with samples from the 2011 vintage.
The real task of blending is a complex juggling act. To make life a little easier for us beginners, we were presented with samples of just four different plots of Merlot and one each of the two Cabernets, all again, from the 2011 harvest.
We had to be careful, but also had to come up with a formula that would ensure at least 60% of the total crop would go into the premium wine, with the rest destined for the estate’s second label.
Armed with our bottles of samples, pipettes and measuring cylinders, we divided into three teams – one of our numbers was paired with Petit-Village’s marketing manager.
I persuaded Henrik, my partner for the exercise, to play down the grassy influence of the Cabernet Franc. I quickly discovered that the addition of just a percentage or two in the blend made a huge difference to the aromas of our wine. It was astonishing also to see just how much effect the Cabernet Sauvignon had, giving the wine a great deal of backbone and freshness, but it also quickly masked the lush character of the softer Merlot.
What was much harder was juggling the four lots of Merlot, which represented the bulk of the wine we had to play with.
When we’d decided on our formulae, we left Daniel to make them up so that we could taste them ‘blind’ and decide the best. For reference, he also included the wine blend that will really be sold as Petit Village.
I won’t be falsely modest. Henrik and I won, knocking the official blend into second place, though I thought the official wine was better. It wasn’t as much fun to drink now as ours, but with more Cabernet and a slightly different balance of the Merlots, it will undoubtedly be a far more impressive wine in five years’ time. After that, a quick taste of samples from the recently fermented 2012 harvest showed just how different the character of the base wines can change from one year to the next.
What I learnt from our little game is that the art of blending doesn’t just require a super-sensitive palate, with an ability to imagine how a wine will taste and smell in any number of years’ time, but it must be matched to hard commercial sense as well. Over lunch I enjoyed two older vintages of Petit-Village with a new-found respect.
Not surprisingly, Petit-Village doesn’t come cheap. The 2007 is available from www.thefinewinecompany.co.uk for around £70 a bottle.
I discovered the addition of just a percentage or two in the blend made a huge difference to the aromas