While Bordeaux wines rose to fame thanks to fine reds with excellent ageing potential, modern reds are also increasingly popular today. Lighter, fruitier and more refreshing, they are enjoyable young and available at affordable prices.
Think you know everything about Bordeaux reds? Think again! Winegrowers’ thirst for innovation and consumer demand has led to the creation of innovative red cuvées that are smoother and more delicious than classic Bordeaux wines, sometimes exclusively (and wrongly) labelled as tannic. Driven by technological progress in the vineyard and cellar, this new trend also reflects demand for more sustainable practices. Read on to find out more.
The renaissance of minority grape varieties
While Bordeaux’s star grape varieties (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc) remain the basis for classic, timeless cuvées, when it comes to modern red wines, minority grape varieties are helping to shake things up (representing 3% of the 89% of Bordeaux red grape varieties). Malbec, Petit Verdot and Carmenère had long been neglected since they are very agronomically demanding. However, they have recently come back into the spotlight thanks to winegrowers who are aware of their potential and the development of new winemaking techniques.
The area under vine devoted to these three grape varieties has soared from 1,564 to 3,192 ha in the past twenty years, which stands as a testimony to the growing interest they have generated. The grapes are picked at peak ripeness to preserve their aromatic freshness and they are increasingly present in the final blend or even used exclusively in lesser-known single varietal cuvées.
Petit Verdot, for instance, used to ripen only once or twice every ten years, but is now ripening much more often and produces high yields, as a result of climate change. It traditionally accounts for between 4 and 10% of the final blend, particularly in Médoc classified growths. Some estates, such as the HEV3-certified Château Belle-Vue (Bordeaux red), even dedicate single varietal cuvées to it! Aged in amphorae ”to preserve freshness and fruitiness” and 400 L oak barrels, the Belle-Vue cuvée “is lively and powerful, with a beautiful tannic structure underpinned by delicious red fruit notes, such as cherry, accompanied by hints of spice.”
Meanwhile, Malbec (also known as “Cot” in the Val-de-Loire and Cahors regions) is an early-ripening grape variety, which produces deeply-colored, full-bodied, tannic, yet smooth wines with notes of black fruit, violet, and spices. It is enjoyable young and more accessible than wines made from Cabernet. Château Grenet’s ephemeral cuvée, for instance, is an organic, vegan Bordeaux red fermented in stainless-steel vats and aged in concrete vats. It displays an ”intense, complex bouquet of black fruit, candied strawberries and caramel aromas, and starts out powerful and round on the palate. This rich, concentrated, and well-balanced wine reveals tight-knit tannins and a tremendously long aftertaste.”
An early-ripening* and relatively infertile grape variety, Carmenère produces deeply-colored, rich, tannic yet fresh and elegant wines thanks to their slight bitterness, such as the Carmine cuvée by Château Le Geai (Bordeaux supérieur). It is crafted according to organic and bidonyamic viticultural methods, fermented in vat and aged for twenty months in clay amphorae, with no added sulfites.
This wine is fresh, lively and fruity. The bouquet displays aromas of blackcurrant, bramble, pepper, and a hint of spice, while the palate is streamlined with silky tannins and expressive fruity flavours, which follow through to the finish, accompanied by long-lasting peppery overtones.
Newly adapted fermentation and ageing techniques
Enjoyable young while also boasting excellent ageing potential – this new style of wines is the result of technical developments in the vat room and cellar. In a bid to reveal the many facets of the terroir, the berries are often processed on a plot-by-plot basis, from picking to the end of fermentation. To preserve the “purity of the fruit”, particularly cherished by Stéphane Derenoncourt (see our webinar for the professionnals on Bordeaux the new red – in english), human intervention is reduced during fermentation, with emphasis placed on short maceration to extract less tannin, indigenous yeast, gentler extraction with moderate pumping over and gravity flow for the smoother transfer of wine.
During ageing, oak influences fade away behind brilliant fruity overtones. Barrels are used with greater restraint, with the proportion of new barrels minimised, the ageing time reduced, and less heavy toasting. Traditional Bordeaux barrels can be combined with other oak containers which impart fewer tannins and aromas thanks to their large volumes (500 L barrels, vats, etc.).
For these new cuvées, some winegrowers even go so far as to give up oak entirely, instead favoring more neutral materials such as stainless-steel and cement vats, amphorae, 300 to 1000 L earthenware or stoneware jars conducive to micro-oxygenation, and egg-shaped vats. For example, the Pervenche cuvée produced by Clos Puy Arnaud (Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux) is made from a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Franc and fermented in non-coated cement vats, then aged for six months in cement vats (¾) and earthenware jars (¼).
It combines the roundness and smoothness of Merlot with freshness and red fruit notes, underpinned by fine, silky-smooth tannin, paving the way for a fresh and well-defined finish.
The culmination of many years of research into producing sulfur-free wine, the Autre Mangot cuvée (Saint-Émilion) produced by the Todeschini brothers offers “an explosion of fruity aromas and flavours“, thanks to fermentation using indigenous yeast, with no added sulfur or input products, and enhanced by barrel ageing for eight months in amphorae and earthenware jars, “for playful tastings and pairings like no other.”
N.B.: vegan cuvées with no added sulfur are also booming in Bordeaux.
Bordeaux under a new light
More often than not, winegrowers who choose this style of red wine tend to also adopt a modern visual identity to help them stand out from the competition. These cuvées may, for instance, feature colorful and creative labels that eschew the established conventions of the great Bordeaux châteaux, or bottles that break away from traditional Bordeaux formats.
The originality of these new red wines also encourages innovative food and wine pairings, featuring modern, unconventional cuisine. Their ultimate benefit: very affordable and capable of seducing a wide range of consumers.
* Ripeness between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon according to technical references