Friday, April 30, 2010

Assemblage, the secret behind the Bordeaux wine

Last year we went on a special wine outing arranged by the Bordeaux Tourist Office in cooperation with Les Médocaines, four female wine growers in the Médoc wine area. At the La Tour de Bessan Castle we learned a little about assemblage, the art of mixing different grapes to create a wine. Here they say that assemblage is what gives the Bordeaux wines their soul.

La Tour de Bessan Castle

The La Tour de Bessan Castle does not resemble a castle. It's a futuristic creation in the shape of a cube, totally modern. When we arrive we are greeted by Marie-Laure Lurton, the owner, who shows us three different wine glasses in front of each seat. The first glass contains a wine made of merlot grapes, the second a wine made of cabernet sauvignon grapes and the third a mix of the two grapes.

Our first task is to taste the merlot wine and give our impressions. I'm a bit surprised to say that my first impression is... alcohol! It smells strongly of alcohol. I'm right, the merlot grape is strong and has a natural alcohol content of 12-14 percent. Usually the merlot grape gives a wine that is soft, fruity and with little acidity.

Then we try the second glass with only cabernet sauvignon. Here I feel the harshness first, the tannins that make my tongue curl. Then I feel a bit of spiciness and a sensation of volume that was lacking in the first glass. The cabernet sauvignon grape is said to be the king of grapes when it has the right ripeness, it gives a rich aroma, structure from the tannins and taste sensations that last in your mouth. It is a wine that can be kept for a long time.

Finally we try the last glass and are asked to guess the percentage of merlot and cabernet sauvignon. Once again I feel the alcohol strongly, but also that astringency.... I like the mix! But how much of what? I guess that there is more of merlot, but the answer is 85 percent of cabernet sauvignon..... Still got a long way to go before I make it as a wine expert!
Wine assembly

During this trial we didn't try any wine made with cabernet franc, the third most common grape in Bordeaux. It is common on the right side of the Garonne river and gives and elegant touch, something that is enhanced when the wines are kept. There is also a fourth kind of grape, petit verdot. It represents only five percent of the total volume, because it is difficult to grow, but adds elegance to the final wine.

Grapes are always different, even if they come from the same vineyard and are of the same variety. The vines have different ages, grow in different soils with different exposal to the sun and the climate varies from one year to the other. Most wine makers separate the grapes from different areas and store them separately. This way, when the storage period is over, the wine maker has a palette of tastes to choose from, to mix to create the final wine. This is also to create stability in the final wine, so you can recognise the character of a castle even if a sunny year has made the grapes sweeter or lots of rain has made them watery.

Marie-Laure, the owner, tells us that assemblage is a group activity. I can't work alone, she says, I'm not objective enough! At her castle she works with the wine director, the production responsible and a wine assembly consultant. She compares it to the dynamics of a group, sometimes you have a competent and nice person - but he doesn't fit into the group.

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