Since the 1800s, Cabernet Sauvignon has been the most prized variety in Bordeaux’s Left Bank. Unfortunately, the grape can’t always be trusted to ripen in the region’s marginal climate — there have been plenty of wet harvests in the Medoc over the past few decades, producing Cabernet that stinks of cabbage and boiled socks. So it is not surprising that growers historically reached for the earlier-ripening Merlot; it requires less heat/sunshine hours, to save their Gallic pride.
Essentially, a good dollop of Merlot can turn barely ripe Cabernet into something vaguely drinkable. It is primarily used as an insurance policy against bad weather in the Left Bank. As a result, mono-varietal Cabernet Sauvignon wines are almost unheard of in Bordeaux.
The Chile paradox
Flip the coin to Chile, and a very different story emerges. Vintners in South America can usually expect to harvest a ripe and healthy crop of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, year in, year out. Regions like Maipo and Rapel bask in a reliably Mediterranean climate, with cloudless sunlight and clean air. Therefore, many wineries traditionally ignored the Bordeaux model in the 20th century, adding little or no additional varieties to their Cabernet Sauvignon bottlings.
Yet in recent times, the Chileans have become more amenable to the idea of mixing and matching different grapes. Paradoxically, the nation appears to be looking to Bordeaux for inspiration, at a time when French oenologists are openly reevaluating the necessity of blending. “If temperatures continue to rise, then I am sure that there will be less and less Merlot and more Cabernet Sauvignon in the Medoc blends, which is always much better for the wine,” explains Matthieu Bordes, general manager at Château Lagrange.
“The region has actually benefited from global warming, as it allows us to include more and more Cabernet Sauvignon in our wines,” he adds, expressing an admiration for the relative ease with which growers in Chile can ripen this superstar grape; 100% Cabernet wines are his dream. Bordes, like many others, cannot understand why the Chileans would head in the opposite direction.
In defense of blending
Many Chilean winemakers believe that the function of classic Medoc blending partners like Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot is to balance the structure of Cabernet Sauvignon, adding additional layers of complexity.
“Blends have been picking up in the Chilean market for some time now,” says oenologist Francisco Baettig, head winemaker at Viña Errázuriz. “I think they give the opportunity to complement the strengths of different varieties and help achieve a more complex and balanced wine. Our icon wine Seña was born as a Bordeaux blend, under the idea of showing in a single wine the full potential of our terroir and Chile of making a world class wine.”
Marcela Burgos, an area manager for the VSPT Wine Group, also has strong views on this subject. “Firstly, when we look at our premium ranges, where we aim for complexity, a blend is likely to be the preferred option as the different varieties all contribute to their complementary organoleptic attributes,” she says. “For our most premium wine, Altair, the blend is defined by the vintage.” Led by Cabernet Sauvignon, it may include a dollop of Syrah, and/or Cabernet Franc.
According to Burgos, climate change is partly responsible for this shift, ironically moving the Chileans closer to a model that some Bordelais want to abandon, due to rising temperatures. If the South American nation has any natural disadvantages, it is a drastic shortage of rainfall in the summer season. In recent years, drought has become a real headache in parts of Chile.
With a keen sense of historical irony, Burgos reminds us that “the original reason why Bordeaux wines are typically blends lies in the region’s maritime climate, and the need to minimize risks by having varieties with different ripening cycles.” She adds that “having different grape varieties planted in Chilean vineyards has proved a useful viticultural strategy in the fight against climate change.” The rationale is that different varieties have varying levels of tolerance to drought stress, and so blending increases your options and reduces risk.
The net result is that a growing number of Chilean wines don’t advertise just one grape variety on the label. Winemakers like Baettig believe that the single-varietal honeymoon is over — they see the move to blending as part of the country’s evolution toward more complex and, dare we say it, European-style wines.
“When wines were prized mostly for being opulent and voluminous, the monolithic style of New World Cabernet became dominant. As the pendulum has swung back to a fresher and more food-friendly style of winemaking, it’s only natural that blending would return to people’s minds.” — Joseph DiGrigoli
Consumers warming up to blends
This cultural shift could not have come at a better time, say leading sommeliers. The massive success of popular red blends like Apothic has helped to demystify the concept of blending, encouraging drinkers to look beyond varietal cues, when making a purchase. San Francisco-based sommelier Joseph DiGrigoli views Chile’s evolving attitude as a positive step in the right direction. He believes it will help them to sell more wine.
“When you take a historical perspective, I think it makes a ton of sense to see winemakers reconsidering mono-varietal Cabernet Sauvignon; blending is definitely back in a big way in the New World,” says DiGrigoli. He explains that, a generation ago, when “wines were prized mostly for being opulent and voluminous, the monolithic style of New World Cabernet became dominant. As the pendulum has swung back to a fresher and more food-friendly style of winemaking, it’s only natural that blending would return to people’s minds.”
Of course, many regions across the world continue to make delicious and affordable mono-varietal Cabernet Sauvignon wines. Meanwhile, if Bordeaux suffers a string of wet vintages this decade, the dream of moving closer to a 100% Cabernet paradigm may decline as quickly as it appeared. Both approaches are relevant and have their respective merits.
“Great Bordeaux highlights how varying amounts of Cabernet can demonstrate different characteristics in the finished wine over time,” says DiGrigoli.
“Yet there is a place for mono-varietal Cabernet and a legion of drinkers who value and enjoy these wines. That said, I think you’ll find a decreasing number of drinkers who regard blending as somehow inferior, and that can only be a good thing.” Basically, it’s a win for diversity — more styles, more choice and more bottles to get excited about.
3 Chilean blends to try:
Vik Milla Cala Cachapoal Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (~$35)
Any list of Chile’s top blended styles cannot possibly omit Vik Milla Cala. Incorporating a small percentage of Syrah, the wine offers a harmonious interplay between cassis, cigar box, raspberry, leather, and tobacco, supported by ripe yet fresh and grippy tannins. Outstanding and relatively good value at under $40.
Caballo Loco Grand Cru Apalta 2017 (~$41)
A favorite among aficionados of Chilean wine, Caballo Loco is a very suave and refined blend, mixing up Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and quite often, Carménère to spectacular effect. It is both opulent and refined, a testament to the superior skill of the team at the Valdivieso winery. Unusually, every bottle of Caballo Loco is actually non-vintage, containing 50% of the current vintage and 50% of the previous edition. Seductive aromas of red fruit, graphite, cassis, and tobacco suggest that Valdivieso should not deviate from its winning formula.
Seña Aconcagua Valley Bordeaux Blend 2018 (~$120)
Arguably Chile’s finest Bordeaux blend, Seña is a remarkable wine. The project was initiated by Robert Mondavi and Eduardo Chadwick, who set out to prove that the wines of Chile could easily rival their more illustrious cousins in Bordeaux. The 2018 is another standout example: Expect an intense nose of black fruits, plum, and spice, with ripe blackcurrant, blackberry, and mocha on the palate. Expensive? Oh yes. But worth it for a special occasion.