France’s Bordeaux wine region is home to some of the earliest made wine and some of the most expensive.
When Washington wine producers first began marketing their premium wines in the early 1980s, maps were used to show the similarities in latitude between Washington State’s wine growing areas and France’s Bordeaux region. Today, the state’s growers and vintners stand on their own reputation, no longer wanting to emulate Bordeaux.
An in-depth look at Bordeaux-style wines—what goes into the growing and making of French and Washington Bordeaux blends—was the focus of a session at the annual meeting of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers held in February in Kennewick, Washington.
The French have a long history and tradition of winemaking. France’s first extensive vineyards were recorded in 122 B.C.E. in what today is the Languedoc region, according to Hugh Johnson in Vintage: The Story of Wine. Today, Languedoc is the world’s largest wine-producing region, with Bordeaux in second place.
Wines from Bordeaux are some of the most prestigious and expensive in the world, but the regulations that govern Bordeaux grape growing and winemaking are also some of the most complicated.
French native Stephane Laborie, who gave the French perspective on Bordeaux during the session, is from a grape-growing family in Bordeaux’s Saint Emilion area. His father farms about 80 acres of wine grapes and is also head of a winery. Laborie graduated from the University of Bordeaux and is studying law at the University of California, Berkeley.
Bordeaux wines are about place, not variety. They are known for their "tipicity" or specificity, Laborie said, adding that tipicity comes from the location, climate, soil types, grape varieties, and such.
The region, with the 45th parallel passing through the area, sits near the Atlantic Ocean. The topography of the large Gironde River divides the region into two very different sectors. On the west side of the Gironde, a plateau slopes progressively toward the coast. On the east, a low, undulating plateau (elevation ranging from 325 to 425 feet above sea level) has relatively deep valleys but no steep or abrupt slopes or uneven ground. Two rivers flowing into the Gironde—the Garonne and Dordogne—further divide the area. Soil types in the area are also variable. Clay, limestone, sand, and gravel are common. Many vineyards are located on sloping, well-drained, gravelly soil.
The region enjoys a mild and temperate ocean climate, influenced by Gulf streams, with warm days and cool nights. However, growers face relatively wet weather during spring, Laborie said. Periodic spring frosts and cold weather during bloom and pollination can result in poor fruit set. Hail can also be a problem throughout the growing season, even during harvest.
"Vintages change from year to year because of the weather," Laborie said. "The variable weather means we have variable vintages."
The region is divided into appellations or AOCs (appellation d’origine controlee). AOCs are a denomination of a locality that can claim to produce wine meeting specific criteria. The translation of AOC—term of controlled origin—is fitting because nearly everything related to wine production, from growing practices to winemaking techniques, is controlled by the AOC.
All red wines from Bordeaux are made from a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc; secondary blending varieties are Malbec, Petite Verdot, and Carmenere. The primary white Bordeaux varieties used for blending include Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle. The components or percentages of the blend are not included on the Bordeaux label as they are in the United States.
"Regulations are very important in France," Laborie said. Very specific regulations dictate what varieties can be grown and where. "For example, even if it was possible with the climate to grow Shiraz, it would be impossible because it’s not allowed."
Gordon Hill, winemaker for Milbrandt Vineyards and Wahluke Wine Company, said that during his early years with Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery and Columbia Crest Winery, he went to trade shows to talk to distributors, armed with maps to show that Washington and Bordeaux both sit on the same 45th parallel.
"In the 1980s, we didn’t have a benchmark," Hill said. "We were Washington, we were new. We needed a benchmark, so we compared ourselves to Bordeaux."
Today, the Washington wine industry has a different goal, he said. "Our goal is to make the world’s best wines from Washington. That kind of moves us away from trying to make Bordeaux-style wines."
As the industry has matured, it has improved in selecting sites for varieties, learned how to use water as a management tool to control canopy size, and gained winemaking experience.
Washington’s relatively dry climate during harvest allows growers and winemakers to wait for maturity before picking. Another advantage is Washington’s ability to blend wines from different appellations. Wine producers can "dial down" from the broad Washington appellation to a single site if they choose, taking advantage of the uniqueness of the state’s different appellations, Hill said.
Kay Simon, winemaker and co-owner of Chinook Winery in Prosser, said that most New World wines made today come from much riper fruit than earlier years. One study of Napa Valley grapes showed that the average Brix has increased 2° in the last 25 years.
"At Chinook, we want to be about ‘place,’ so we are producing wines only from the Yakima Valley appellation," she said, adding that they use various vineyard techniques like leaf stripping to improve fruit uniformity and quality.
Grape growing at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates’s Canoe Ridge Vineyard focuses on improving grape uniformity, said Mimi Nye, Canoe Ridge vineyard manager. "Vegetal quality is a problem with Bordeaux varieties. One of the most important things to me is uniformity."
While it’s difficult to have all the grapes ripen on the same day (as one winemaker once told her he wanted), Nye takes extra steps to improve uniformity within the canopy, especially in Merlot, which she describes as a "wimpy" variety. Weak shoots are thinned early, and color thinning of clusters is timed to coincide with veraison so workers can see the differences in berry color. Clusters are also thinned on the sun-exposed side of the canopy to eliminate sunburned clusters.
Water management also helps improve quality by making the berries smaller and concentrating the flavors, but she keeps a close watch to make sure that regulated deficit irrigation doesn’t stress the vines too much. "Stress is good but not distress," she said.
Bill den Hoed of Vigneron Management, Grandview, said he planted his first Merlot vineyard in 1980. The early vineyards were very vigorous because they were being farmed with a "juice grape grower mentality." Growers have since learned that red Bordeaux varieties require much more diligence and require leaf pulling, and shoot and cluster thinning to produce quality fruit.
Unlike Bordeaux, Washington grape growers have the ability to control the water and decide when to put it on, den Hoed said, crediting Washington State University researchers for developing the valuable management tool of regulated deficit irrigation.