WSET® 2 Reading, Chapter 9: Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot (Class Notes)

  • Cab and Merlot are often grown together and blended together. In the blend:
    • Merlot adds softness and body.
    • Cab adds tannins, acidity, and aromatic fruitiness.
  • Cab by itself can be austere. Merlot is added to make it more easily drinkable.

THE FLAVOURS OF CAB

  • Color: Black or blue grapes. Deep color wines.
  • Fruit: Black, intense fruit (blackcurrant, black cherry). 
  • Non-fruit: Herbaceous (bell pepper, mint).
  • AromaticsHigh aromatics.
  • TanninHigh tannin.
  • Acid: High acid.
  • Body: Less body than Merlot.
  • Oak: Oak frequently used to age the premium wines, softening the tannins and adding oaky flavours (smoke, vanilla, coffee, cedar).
  • Climate: Moderate or hot climates. Cab cannot ripen in cool climates or cool years. Wines from under-ripe Cab can be very harsh and astringent with unpleasant herbaceous flavours. Wines from hot climates are fuller-bodied, with softer tannins, more black cherry fruit, and less herbaceous-ness. 
  • Ageability: Good ageability. Due to high tannin and acid. 

THE FLAVOURS OF MERLOT

  • Color: Dark blue grapes.
  • Fruit: Black fruit (blackberry, black plum, black cherry). In moderate or cooler climates, a more elegant style of red fruit (strawberry, red berry, plum).
  • Non-fruit: Some super-ripe versions display fruitcake and chocolate flavours. In moderate or cooler climates, a more elegant style has herbal notes (mint).
  • Aromatics: Less aromatic than Cab.
  • Tannin: Medium levels of gentle tannins. Lighter tannin than Cab. In moderate or cooler climates, a more elegant style has a little more tannin.
    Aromatics: Less aromatic than Cab.
  • Acid: Low to medium acid. Lighter acidity than Cab. In moderate or cooler climates, a more elegant style has a little more acid.
  • Body: Full body. More body than Cab.
  • Alcohol: High alcohol. Higher alcohol than Cab.
  • Oak: The best Merlot wines are often aged in oak, they gain spicy and oak flavours (vanilla, coffee).
  • Climate: Common international style Merlot is grown in hot climates, or over-ripe grapes grown in moderate climates.
  • Ageability: Often aged in oak.

PREMIUM CAB AND MERLOT REGIONS (THE GOOD)

  • Bordeux
    • Bordeaux is the classic home for these grape varieities. It has a moderate, maritime climate with long, warm autumns that provide ideal conditions for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The region is based around the Gironde estuary in southwest France, where the Garonne and Dordogne rivers meet. For premium-quiality wines, it is helpful to focus on two zones within the Bordeaux region.
    • West and south of the Gironde and Garonne lies the zone many refer to as the Left Bank. Running from north to south, the main appellations here are the Médoc, Haut-Médoc (including the communes Pauillac and Margaux), and Graves (including the commune Pessac-Léognan). Here, Cabernet Sauvignon is the dominant variety. The best sites are on gravel mounds that drain water away and retain heat to aid ripening. The wines are medium or full-bodied, with high levels of tannin and acidity, medium alcohol, and long length. They can be very tough when young, but with age the tannins soften, and the flavours of black fruit (blackcurrant, black cherry) and toasty fragrant oak develop into vegetal, tobacco, and cedar complexity. The very best wines come from the Cru Classé chateaux. These are among the world’s most complex long-lived red wines.
    • The other major production zone for premium-quality wines, the Right Bank, likes north and east of the Gironde and Dordogne. The most important appellations are Saint-Émillion AC (the best wines from here are labelled as Saint-Émillion Grand Cru AC) and Pomerol AC.) Merlot is the dominant variety here, and the wines are generally softer in style than those from the Left Bank. They typically have medium tannin levels, medium acidity, and a red fruit characrter (plum, red berry), developing cedar and tobacco notes as they age.
    • Many premium-quality Bordeaux wines are made outside of the most prestigious appellations. These are labelled simply as Bordeaux AC or Bordeaux Supérieur AC (a designation that requires a higher level of alcohol than basic Bordeaux AC). These medium-bodied dry reds generally have medium tannin levels and acidity, and a mixture of red and black fruit flavours from the MErlot and Cabernet Sauvignon components. They are generally best consumed while quite young, but some can benefit from bottle age.
  • Australia and New Zealand
    • Cabernet Suavignon is widely known in Australia, and two regions have established themselves as modern classics. Coonawarra Cabernet often displays intense, structured wines with distinctive cassis, mint, and eucalyptus flavours, accompanying the black fruit (black cherry) and oak notes (toast, vanilla). Margaret River in Western Australia produces varietal Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet-Merlot blends. These generally have high tannin levels, with black fruit and herb flavours (blackcurrant, blackcurrant leaf).
    • High-quality Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlots, and Cabernet-Merlot blends are made in the Hawke’s Bay area of New Zealand’s North Island. These typically have medium or high acidity and tannins, and herb aromas (cedar, blackcurrant leaf).
  • USA
    • In California, Cabernet Sauvignon is the most iwdely planted black grape. The Napa Valley provides ideal conditions for Cabernet Sauvignon and is also a source of some very good Merlots. Rutherford and Oakville are specifically known for premium Cabernet Sauvignons. These wines typically have high levels of soft, ripe tannin, and are deeply coloured with black cherry and oak flavours. In Sonoma, Alexander Valley has a reputation for soft-textured, full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignons. Premium Californian Merlots are generally full-bodied, with flavours of soft black fruit, fruitcake, and oak. The extremely dry, sunny climate of Columbia Valley in eastern Washington State also provides excellent conditions for the production of deeply coloured, full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots. In both California and Washington, these two varieties sometimes appear blended together, following the Bordeaux model.
  • South America
    • Chile produces premium-quality varietal and blended wines from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. These often have pronounced herbal characteristics (green bell pepper, blackcurrant leaf) accompanying intense black fruit flavours (black cherry, blackberry). The best regions are the Maipo Valley, close to Santiago, and Colchagua and Cachapoal (parts of the Rapel Valley), further south. Due to previous confusion in the vineyards, soeme of the wine that is labelled as Merlot is in fact Carmenère (an old, high-quality variety, also originally from Bordeaux). This can add intense colour and spiced black fruit (blackberry, liquorice, pepper).
    • In Argentina, Cabernet Sauvignon appears as varietal wines and is blended with Malbec. Traditionally these wines were aged in oak for a long time before release, giving meaty, leathery flavours. Modern styles are much fruitier. Within the hot Mendoza region, where most of Argentina’s exported wines are made, there are premiums ites where clijate is moderated by altitude. These sites are the source of fruit for most of Argentina’s best red wines.
  • South Africa
    • South Africa produces some very good Cabernet-Merlot blends, as well as pure varietal wines. These typically have less intense fruit and more herb flavours compared with similar wines from Australia or California. Many of the wines from Stellenbosch are close to the Bordeaux style, with high levels of tannin and acidity.

BULK, INEXPENSIVE CAB AND MERLOT REGIONS (THE BAD)

  • Cabernet Sauvignon is a grape variety that can be cropped at quite high levels, in a range of climates (provided they are not too cool), and still retiain some of its black fruit and high tannin character.
  • Many inexpensive Merlots are rather bland, though inoffensive, which could be why they are so popular.
  • Much basic Bordeaux arguably comes under this heading. The best ones are soft, light-or medium-bodied, and Merlot-based.
  • Chile (Central Valley) and Southern France (Pays d’Oc IGP)
    • Large volumes of inexpensive, varietally expressive Cabernet Sauvignons, Merlots, and Cabernet-Merlot blends.
  • South Africa (Western Cape), South Eastern Australia, California, Argentina (Mendoza)
    • Also important areas, although these areas have more success with Cabernet Sauvignon than Merlot.
  • Northern Italy
    • Produces large volumes of inexpensive, light-bodied Merlot.

CAB AND MERLOT IN BLENDS

  • In Australia, Shiraz is often used with Cab to give the softness and richness that Merlot supplies in Bordeaux and elsewhere.
  • Merlot is sometimes blended with Malbec in Argentina.
  • Both Cab and Merlot are blended with Carmenère in Chile.
  • Cab is used in many regions to improve wines by adding a little aromatic fruit, colour, and tannin.
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