Natty Girls-in-Training: Week Six of the WSET. Bordeaux Blends and Loire Lovelies

by Megan Jones

Bonjour, winos and winas,

How was your weekend? Mine was… a blur. I don’t think it should be legal to start a wedding at 2.30 in the afternoon without a sniff of something to eat, it’s asking for trouble. Luckily had a life-saving McDonald’s on the way home. God bless the fast-food industry.

I realise last week I promised I’d tell you all about Pinot Noir today. Turns out I can’t read – Pinot Noir is next week. If you can’t wait another second to read about the heartbreak grape, I dunno, google it? Don’t google it. You know you’d rather read about it in my inimitable semi-accurate style.

So, not Pinot Noir. Instead we’re going to Bordeaux, pack your bikinis!

The main thing you need to know about Bordeaux is that the weather is mental, like certified bananas. The Atlantic, that tricky little shit, means that rainfall and humidity are a constant headache. So maybe you don't need that bikini after all. Rain falls throughout the year and can mess up flowering, cause rot, and even dilute the flavours of the grapes when it comes to harvest. Therefore, the vast majority of wines produced in Bordeaux are blends of different grapes, because producers can’t rely on any one variety ripening properly, so they throw a whole load in there together. The only single varietal wine produced in Bordeaux is Sauvignon Blanc, I guess coz she’s a tough old broad.

Let’s talk black grape varieties. Cab Sauv rules the roost up in the Haut-Médoc, because the soils there have a high gravel content, meaning they stay warm and drain nicely, which the late-ripening Cab Sauv needs. Cab Franc is the big dog in Saint-Émilion, and you’ve gotta be careful with her because she can add gross stalky flavours to wine if harvested too early. When ripe though, she’s got all these vibrant fruity floral notes to give. Merlot is the most widely planted variety in Bordeaux, because it’s much less fussy about soil – it’ll grow even in the cool clay ground of Saint-Émilion and Pomerol. At last, a grape that’s not a total pain in the hmmrmmm. It’s got this soft, plush quality that means a lot of it gets chucked into blends. Finally there’s Petit Verdot, which historically has had much smaller plantings because it only ripens successfully in super hot years, and therefore only ever plays a minor role in blends. However, thanks to our best friend climate change, it’s getting planted more and more because we’re all living in a slowly pre-heating oven. Honestly, trying to learn about wine is like trying to keep up with the news. Every time you think you’ve learned something, it changes.

On to the whites. When it comes to sweet wines, Sémillon is king, thanks to its thin skin and the fact that it freakin loves noble rot. Did we talk about noble rot yet? A digression for another day. We've got ages til the exam (she says, panicked). There’s Sauv Blanc as well, as discussed, which, apart from being the only grape that can stand on its own in the shitstorm that is the Bordeaux climate, is also blended with Sémillon to make standout dry white wines in Pessac-Léognan and Graves. So versatile! Muscadelle is the Petit Verdot of the white varieties, playing back-up dancer to the bigger grapes on the scene. When it’s added though, it has a pronounced grapey (that’s a direct quote from the textbook), floral flavour which elevates both sweet and dry wines.

Now for everyone’s favourite part of the show: classifications, aka paperwork. Back in 1855, the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce was tasked with putting together a list of the best red wines from the Médoc and the best white wines from Sauternes. Obviously, 1855 was a little while ago, but the list remains the same – once you’re on it, you’re on it, and if you’re not on it, you’re not getting on it. Meaning if a châteaux opened their doors in 1856, sorry mate, you just missed the cut. Since no-one that was alive in 1855 is alive now, as far as I’m aware, the châteaux on the list have passed through a whole slew of different hands since then, so the list’s function as a true marker of quality is debatable. It also excludes, as I mentioned, anyone who opened after 1855, or even someone who was open in 1855 and used to be rubbish at making wine but is now really good. So to encapsulate all these outliers, they’ve since created three further categories: Cru Bourgeois, Cru Bourgeois Supérieur and Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel. The producers holding these titles are reviewed every five years. So you’re saying you can in fact review and amend a list denoting producer quality? It doesn’t have to be set in stone for 170 years? Whatever. Not my circus, not my monkeys, as the saying goes.

We’ve got time for a quick pitstop in the Loire Valley, I reckon. There are four sub-regions: Nantais, Anjou-Saumur, Touraine and the Central Vineyards. Our teacher gave us the useful acronym ‘NASTY’ to remember them all. I think ‘Y’ is a bit of a stretch for Central VineYards, but I’ll take what I can get. Anything that’ll help me remember all of this. The climate is varied across the four, with the coastal Nantais region having a maritime climate and the more inland Central Vineyards enjoying a continental one.

As for grapes here – Sauvignon Blanc is produced in Touraine and the Central Vineyards, the latter of which plays host to two of the most prestigious appellations for this grape, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. These vinos are dry with bracing acidity, imparting flavours of green apple and wet stones (which is apparently WSET speak for ‘mineral’. You’re not allowed to say ‘mineral’ in the exam. I don’t know why, take it up with the board). Styles vary wildly, from fermenting in inert stainless steel vessels for a nice fresh fruity touch, to lees contact and old oak, all the way up to new oak. Chenin Blanc produces the greatest wines of Touraine and Anjou-Saumur, and she's a funny one coz even within the same bunch of grapes, the individual berries can have different levels of ripeness. How does that happen? Not a clue, it just means that the vigneron might have to stroll through the vineyard a couple of times to pick the grapes when they’re juuuust right. Chenin makes up for this weird ripening anomaly by being capable of making any kind of white wine you can imagine: dry, sweet, still, sparkling, big fish, little fish, cardboard box. Dry and sweet Chenins can sleep for years and years, popping their head above ground when they’ve got nice mature flavours of honey, toast and hay. Okay, nice flavours of honey and toast, the weird but apparently desirable flavour of hay.

Running out of words here, but just in case anyone wants to accuse me of leaving anything out, other grapes here include Melon Blanc, Cab Franc and Gamay. Okay? Everyone happy?

Enough learning for one day. Let’s drink.

Here’s a dece Bordeaux blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, and here I offer you a smorgasbord of Loire Valley offerings: one for everyday quaffing, one for when you’ve got a hot date but all your cookbooks are covered in dust so you have to distract them with booze and one for when you’ve had such a cruddy week that you just want to spend a stupid amount of money on something beautiful. Oh look, it’s made with yet another grape I didn’t mention. SORRY.

Have a sweet week, catch ya next Monday for Pinot Noir.



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