For the most part, in the United States we make wine out of grapes that originated in Europe. These grapes are of the species Vitis Vinifera (you may hear that term bandied about by your pretentious wine snob friends) and account for the majority of wines produced around the world. There are several native species of grapes in North America (vitis lambrusca, vitis riparia, vitis rotundifolia) but unfortunately most wines made from those grapes taste like ass. In fact Viking explorers called North America “Vinland” due to the profusion of grapes they found. The first wines produced in the United States by the French Huguenots were from the indigenous Scuppernong grape, but settlers didn’t like the wines made from native grapes as the flavors were unfamiliar to them. And then there was the name-would you rather be offering a glass of Scuppernong to that pretentious wine snob friend, or an elegant Pinot Noir? I’m just sayin…
The best way to understand California wine (and most wine in the United States) is to go back to the roots (no pun intended) and look into both the grapes, and regions of France where those grapes are grown. Typically, if you know what region in France a wine is from, you'll know what grape(s) that wine is made of. In an earlier post I pointed out that the main difference in identifying and comparing wines in California and Europe is a question of both grape varietal (i.e. - Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay) and region (Burgundy, Bordeaux). For the most part, Europe identifies its wines by the region it comes from, whereas we designate wine first by the varietal, and second by the region (Pinot Noir, Central Coast). A good place to start is by discussing the 5 primary Bordeaux grapes, and what grapes grow there.
The granddaddy of varietals in the US, Cabernet is a cross between Cabernet Franc, and Sauvignon Blanc. Cabernet is often the primary grape in Bordeaux blends (the other being Merlot) and are often referred to as “left bank blends” due to being grown on the left bank of the Gironde estuary- see map above. Cabernet has a lot going for it- thick skins, the vines are hardy, and it buds late so as to avoid late spring frost. In addition, it’s resistant to many hazards such as insects and rot, and produces wines of consistent structure and flavor from year to year. Unfortunately it’s not resistant to mediocre wine makers. Some if its success has even been attributed to its name and the ease of its pronunciation (take note Scuppernong).
“I am NOT drinking any f*&king Merlot”- Miles (Paul Giamatti) in “Sideways”. Merlot is the most widely planted grape in Bordeaux and one of the world’s most planted varietals. It’s the offspring of Cabernet Franc and an obscure, unnamed varietal. Merlot is dark blue in color, and is “soft and fleshy” (like my first girlfriend) and ripens earlier than Cabernet. It’s often blended (“right bank blend”) with Cabernet to soften the harsher tannins of the Cabernet grape. Merlot blends from Bordeaux tend to be medium bodied with fresh red fruit flavors (strawberry, raspberry). By the way, at the end of Sideways Miles drinks his prized wine, a 1961 Chateau Cheval Blanc from a Styrofoam coffee cup at a fast food restaurant. The varietal? A merlot/cab franc blend.
The father of Cabernet Sauvignon (or maybe its mother!), “Cab Franc” is subtly fragrant, and diminutive compared to Cabernet Sauvignon, which typically has bigger body, tannin, color, and alcohol. Cab Franc ripens a week or two before Cabernet Sauvignon and is pale red in color. It’s used primarily as a blending grape in France, playing second fiddle to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The United States has followed suit and will often make blends from the same varietals as in France. A blend of two or more Bordeaux grapes in the U.S. is often called a Meritage (some dudes got together and came up with the name and charge winemakers a buck a case to use the moniker). Recently, California has seen a rise in single varietal Cabernet Franc wines.
Similar to a Syrah in taste, Malbec has come to be known as an awesome, reasonably priced red wine from Argentina, although it got its start in France as a blending grape, much like Cabernet Franc. Malbec is a purple grape that needs more sun and heat than Cabernet, Merlot, and George Hamilton. It ripens earlier than both Cab and Merlot, and It’s deep color, big tannins, and plum-like flavor can add complexity to Bordeaux style blends. Malbecs from Argentina usually have a velvety mouth feel along with intense fruity flavors and a smoky finish, and aren’t as Tannic as their French counterparts. Malbec does well in Argentina because the vines love high elevation, along with hot days and cool nights. Mendoza, Argentina’s chief wine growing region averages 3000 feet in altitude. I’m thinking Malbec may do well in Palmdale.
Used in small amounts to add tannin, color, and flavor to blends, Petit Verdot ripens later than the other Bordeaux varietals, which makes it easier to grow in California due to the more consistent, warmer climate. Like Cabernet Franc, California winemakers are beginning to experiment with Petit Verdot as a single varietal. If you have a Bordeaux blend and you taste banana or pencil shavings, that may be the Petit Verdot talkin’.