Bordeaux may not be the cradle of vitis vinifera, but it is the historic home of some of the most prominent red wine varietals in the world, namely Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Not only has its native varietals become international sensations, but it’s also played an essential role in shaping the modern history of wine. Some of the Founding Fathers of America wrote about, and also drank, wines from some of its famous estates, such as Haut Brion. The 1855 classification symbolized the region’s status as the pinnacle of the wine world, and also influenced how wine was to be marketed. These esteemed estates were some of the original brand names – or labels, as we call them today. Within a couple decades, a small pest from the States would completely change the wine map of Europe and the vineyards of Bordeaux.
Prior to the arrival of phylloxera*, there were six prominent red Bordeaux varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, and Carmenére. Although the first five varietals can still be found in Bordeaux, their relative proportions have changed greatly. Much of this was due to how well each varietal responded to grafting, their natural disease resistance and popularity, and general productivity. Both Malbec and Carmenére lost favorability after phylloxera because of their susceptibility to certain types of mildew.
*For those unfamiliar with phylloxera, it is a small insect originally native to eastern North America. American varietals (like vitis labrusca) were resistant to the pest, but when clippings from these plants were taken to Europe in the 1850’s, the insect quickly began decimating the vineyards of France. Within a few decades, over two-thirds of all of Europe’s vineyards had been destroyed. Grafting onto resistant rootstock proved to be the best method for dealing with the epidemic.
The exuberant price tags on recent vintages of classified Bordeaux is clear evidence that the region and its wines surely recovered from the devastation phylloxera bore upon its vineyards. What is a more compelling story is how the region’s vines and winemakers found new life in distant lands. From the exodus over the Pyrenees, to the resurrection of Malbec and Carmenére in South America, to the proliferation of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot throughout the winegrowing world, the ashes from which this phoenix rose were sprinkled wide.
Two of the newest releases from 90+ Cellars truly exemplify this story. Lot 128, the humbly named Gran Vino (2010), is a blend from the Navarra region of Spain. Long obscured by its more famous neighbor, Rioja, Navarra was one of the first regions to welcome winemakers hoping to escape the wrath of phylloxera by traversing the Pyrenees. Although most of Spain was not spared from the effects of phylloxera, the influence these winemakers had on certain regions of the country around the turn of the last century can still be seen in the wines produced today.
The 2010 Gran Vino reflects the influence of the technics and varietals of the Bordelais, along with characteristics of the local varietals and the blessing of an excellent vintage. Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo compete for top billing, while Merlot and Graciano finish out the blend. A year in new French oak manages to incorporate the different varietals, while an additional bottle aging further integrates the wine. This is a wine that reflects the concept of blending with a purpose, like in Bordeaux, where the local Tempranillo offers plummy fruit and spice, the Cabernet offers it red fruit, Merlot its dark fruit and plushness, and Graciano its structure and color. What this wine also offers over its French and Spanish neighbors is a remarkable value – around $10. Many critics advised their readers to stock up on wines from the 2010 vintage in Navarra, but it should be required when the wine is this affordable.
The second wine, 90+ Cellars Lot 127 Cabernet/Carmenére blend from Valle de Maipo in Chile, not only demonstrates the far reaches of where these grape have traveled to; it also shows the rediscovery of Bordeaux’s lost varietal, Carmenére. Long mistaken for a clone of Merlot, it was not until 1994 that it was discovered to be Carmenére. With the help of some dedicated winemakers, this grape is finding a new home in the central valley of Chile. Unlike Malbec in Argentina, Carmenére is still playing second fiddle to Cabernet Sauvignon in Chile.
Lot 127 combines the outstanding Cabernet of the Maipo Valley with richly colored Carmenére of the Colchagua Valley. For fans of Bordeaux, both branches of the Rothschild family, Mouton and Lafite, have presence in these two regions. The extended growing season of the area helps produce lush and rich wines with no sense of austerity. An insane value at around $10, this is a wine that exemplifies the qualities of these two grapes while strongly reflecting the land they grow.
These wines may not represent the most prominent feathers on the phoenix that rose out of the devastation of the Bordeaux vineyards nearly 150 years ago, but they are testament the remarkable resilience of the vitis vinifera vines and the world’s winemakers. Drink and enjoy what history has provided us.
Michael Munk is our Portfolio Manager as well as Sales Director for CT and RI.