Blending Bordeaux Blanc.
Did you know that originally Bordeaux, the famous wine region located in the west of France, actually produced more white wine than red wine? In the scheme of things, it was only relatively recently when the demand for their red wines grew that the white grapes were replaced. Another interesting fact is that the legalisation only permits a small variety of white grapes to be used in production.
These include Sauvignon Blanc, Semillion, Sauvignon Gris and Muscadelle. Although the first variety is pretty well known, praised for its quality in New Zealand and the Loire, the others might be a little less familiar. Semillion is used to add ageing potential, body and strong complex flavours to the blend. Sauvignon Gris gives an almost smoky character with intense concentrated flavours.
However, the secret to the white wines of Bordeaux isn't in fact the grape varieties they use, it's about the winemakers themselves. Bordeaux is all about blending. This means taking small portions of individual wines and carefully mixing them in a variety of concentrations to create a better final blend. A master blender based in Entre-Deux-Mers once told me that, 'Bordeaux wines are much the same as a rock band, although each individual instrument can be wonderfully solo, when expertly composed together a masterpiece is created.'
This is very true. Imagine the bass guitar, it's a vital component of any great band however on its own it lacks something, this is similar to the role Semillion can play. Sauvignon Blanc is the lead singer, potentially the most important role but can be one dimensional without accompaniment. This grape tends to make up the majority of a Bordeaux Blanc this is due to its great acidity and flavour balance. Sauvignon Gris I would describe as 'the something more'. The person that makes your band stand out. It may be as obvious as a piano but often more delicately entwined. The unique and complex composition is what makes Bordeaux Blanc so wonderful and varied.
The winemaker has the final say and can choose pretty much any combination they see fit. Blending might seem fairly easy, you combine wines and create a better wine.... wrong. The art of blending is difficult and often goes wrong. Wine makers create hundreds of different samples, tweaking each product until perfection is achieved.
The next problem is that a small sample behaves very differently to a large quantity of wine. Imagining it differently, if you were to make one loaf of bread and then use exactly the same ingredients but 100 times the amount the two loaves would be completely different. The latter would take far longer to cook, potentially burning the crust and remaining raw inside. There may be pockets of flavour which don't transfer throughout the product. Even with the same ingredients in the same ratios won't always mean you get the same final product. Therefore, a wine maker has to again tweak the final batch, add wines with more richness or aromatic fruit.
Another vital thing to remember is each vintage can be drastically different to the next. Yield and quality are greatly affected by the weather, something not even the finest of growers can control. Spring frost, summer hail or autumn rain can damage the grapes making them unsuitable for wine production. The temperature is another huge factor. Too warm and the grapes acidity will be lost, creating a flabby final wine. Too cold and the flavours will be overly green, subdued or sharp.
Wine is all about creating the perfect balance. It's often said that you can't make a good wine from poor quality grapes, however you can make a very poor wine from excellent quality grapes - it depends on how you treat them!