A big fan of Bordeaux wines but looking for something different? We look at various alternative Bordeaux blends from other winemaking regions across the world.
Bordeaux in southwestern France is one of the most famous winemaking regions in the world. It is renown for making some of the most highly-regarded and desired wines – whether it’s opulently rich red wines, crisp or sweet white ones – the world has known across history. And for a region that consistently makes quality wine, it also surprisingly makes a lot of it. Bordeaux makes over 60 million cases of wine a year, almost all of it at Appellation d’Origin Controlee (AOC) level.
But while Bordeaux makes some excellent white wines – the crisp Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc blends of Graves and Pessac-Leognan, or the sweet ones of Sauternes and Loupiac, for example – it’s really Bordeaux reds that has cemented the region’s reputation. In fact, some 90% of the region is planted to red grape varieties.
The primary red grape varieties of Bordeaux permitted in the making of its red wines are primarily Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carménère are also allowed. These red varietals have gone on to be considered “international” varieties, as they have since been planted widely around the world. Many New World wine regions in particular have drawn inspiration from Bordeaux and emulated its iconic red wine blends, whether the Cabernet Sauvignon-led expressions from its “Left Bank”, or the Merlot-forward ones from Libournais, or the “Right Bank”.
Not that one can tire of drinking the excellent wines of Bordeaux. But if you’re a wine lover looking to explore alternative Bordeaux blends made outside of Bordeaux, we’ve put together a list of different winemaking regions around the world that’s also known for making some excellent wines inspired by the famous French wine-growing region.
Some of the most famous examples of Bordeaux-style red wines hail from the Italian winemaking region of Toscana (Tuscany), in what we know today as the Super Tuscans. Super Tuscan wines originated in the 1970s as the result of the appellation laws surrounding the making of Chianti. Tuscan winemakers who wanted to produce wines that fit outside of those strict DOC guidelines, including those made from international grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot as inspired by the wines of Bordeaux, were instead forced to label them under the lesser-regarded IGT Toscana designation. But many of these controversial Super Tuscan wines were to go on and garner international acclaim, and fetch some of the highest prices for Tuscan-made wines.
The rules have been changed since to accommodate some leeway in the making of Chianti. But those Tuscan winemakers who believed that the beautiful Mediterranean climate of Tuscany can produce some of the best Cabernet and Merlot in the world continue to do so. Today there are many such Bordeaux-style red wine blends coming out of Toscana, and not all of them are priced stratospherically. The Cabernet-led Petra Toscana Rosso, the Bindi Sergardi Simbiosi Rosso Toscana, and the Tenute Rossetti Linda Bolgheri DOC are all more affordable alternative Bordeaux blends to consider.
Napa Valley, California USA.
Napa Valley is California’s most eminent winemaking region, and by extension, also America’s best-known one. Tucked between the Mayacamas and Vacas mountain ranges, it’s essentially a small strip of land with just 46,000 acres (18,600 hectares) under vine. But Napa punches way above its weight in other areas. Though Napa Valley produces just 4% of California’s total wine production, in terms of value it contributes almost 30% of the entire California wine region’s impact to the US economy.
Its rise to fame, of course, can be attributed to the now famous – or infamous, if you’re French – 1976 “Judgement of Paris”, where an esteemed panel of wine judges had rated Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ahead of classified Bordeaux wines in a blind tasting. Thanks to that record, today Napa Valley is most widely planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, far ahead of Chardonnay, Merlot and Pinot Noir.
Unsurprisingly, most good Napa Valley producers flog their Cabernet Sauvignon. But a number also produce excellent Bordeaux-style red blends. A fabulous example here would be the Trinchero Napa Valley Forte. A proprietary Bordeaux-style blend by one of Napa’s most iconic family producers – there’s Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in it for sure, but we won’t know the exact composition – you can expect the fullness of Napa’s terroir in a style that pays tribute to the one it’s inspired by.
The Trinchero Napa Valley Forte is available from Ares Konsultant.
Stellenbosch, South Africa.
Stellenbosch is South Africa’s second-oldest but perhaps its best-known winemaking region. Located just 40km east of Cape Town, the area is home to some of the country’s most famous wine producers.
And for good reason. Hemmed in by mountains, Stellenbosch enjoys a largely maritime climate thanks to the influence of False Bay. The bay helps moderate the normally hot summer temperatures during the growing season to around 20°C, which is close to Bordeaux’s. The mostly granite and sandstone soils found throughout Stellenbosch are considered to be very well suited for the production of premium red wine grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Perhaps most importantly, there is sufficient variation in terroir here that different areas are recognised by South Africa’s Wine of Origin (essentially geographical indicators) such as Banghoek, Devon Valley, and Bottelary, among others.
Thankfully wines from South Africa’s Stellenbosch region are readily available, and many are made in the style of a Bordeaux red blend. An example would be the Kendal Lodge Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot Cabernet Franc, made by Stellenbosch producer Journey’s End for Marks & Spencer from grapes grown on prime Stellonbosch hillside sites close to the ocean, and aged in French oak much like the Bordeaux wines it’s inspired by.
The Kendal Lodge Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot Cabernet Franc is available from Marks & Spencer.
Elgin Valley, South Africa.
The beautiful wine-producing district of Elgin in South Africa’s Western Cape winemaking region of Overberg may not be as famous as Stellenbosch, but their wines are increasingly garnering international recognition. Unlike Stellenbosch, Elgin is located in a basin nestled between mountains and is actually better known for producing cool climate wines thanks to the higher altitudes.
But scattered among the mostly Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc grown in Elgin are some plots of Merlot, which thrive on the clay soils in its diverse terroir. Along with moderating influence from the coast, the slower, more gradual ripening across the growing season means wines produced here can have a greater complexity of flavours.
An excellent example of a Merlot from Elgin is the Shannon Vineyards Mount Bullet, which wine critic Tim Atkin MW is said to have called “the only world-class example of a Merlot from South Africa”. While not technically a Bordeaux blend in the strictest of terms, this wine is made using a blend from five different Merlot clones. The wine is vinified and then matured in French oak barriques from three different Bordeaux cooperages for approximately 20 months. If you enjoy a good right bank Bordeaux, say Fronsac or Pomerol, you’re likely to enjoy this beautiful Merlot.
The Shannon Vineyards Mount Bullet is available from Wine To Share.
Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand.
You may know that New Zealand is one of the world’s leading producers of quality Sauvignon Blanc, especially those that hail from the Marlborough region on its South Island. Increasingly, Pinot Noir wines from Central Otago – also on South Island – are gaining prominence in world wine circles. What you may not know is that Hawke’s Bay on New Zealand’s North Island – the country’s oldest and second largest wine region – is home to some incredible Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and, by extension, Bordeaux-style red blends. Which isn’t surprising, since the region possesses a wide diversity of soil types and a climate similar to that of Bordeaux.
Here in Hawke’s Bay, Merlot – and to a slightly lesser extent, Cabernet Sauvignon – is generally grown inland, across its subregions of Gimblett Gravels, Te Mata and Bridge Pa Triangle. And example here would be the Babich The Patriarch, the flagship wine from one of New Zealand’s oldest winemaking families. The grapes that go into the wine are grown at their Gimblett Gravels ‘Irongate’ vineyard, and this elegant wine made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec pays homage to Bordeaux but stamped with its unique Kiwi identity.
Colchagua Valley, Chile.
Chile’s Maipo Valley is its most well-known winemaking region, located as it is around the country’s capital of Santiago. It is also the centre of Chilean winemaking. But Maipo Valley’s Central Valley counterpart, Colchagua, is also considered among Chile’s best – if not, at least one of the most promising.
Located south of Santiago and Maipo Valley, the Colchagua subregion occupies the lower part of the larger Rapel Valley. Like most of Chile’s wine regions, Colchagua Valley possesses of a mild Mediterranean climate with slightly cooler climes than Maipo Valley. This allows for the slow ripening of grapes during the growing season that encourages deeper, more complex flavours to develop. And while the valley’s rich diversity of soil types sees numerous varietals grown here, it’s the Bordeaux varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Carménère – introduced here just before phylloxera destroyed most winemaking regions in the Old World – that have truly thrived. As such, some of the finest red wines to come out of Chile are made here.
An example of a wine made in the Colchagua Valley is the Neyen Espiritu de Apalta, made from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Carménère. Interestingly, Carménère was originally planted in the Médoc region of Bordeaux and is one of the permitted grape varietals to go into a Bordeaux blend. But after phylloxera blight of the mid-19th century wiped out Carménère plantings in Bordeaux – along with all others – it was pretty much never replanted. This means a Cabernet Sauvignon and Carménère like this Neyen “spirit of Apalta” is one of the only few ways to try a Bordeaux-style wine made with Carménère.
The Neyen Espiritu de Apalta is available from Malt & Wine Asia.
Margaret River, Western Australia.
In 1966, prominent Australian agronomist and viticultural scientist Dr John Gladstones published his research into the suitability of Margaret River in Western Australia for viticulture. His study had alluded to the climate and soils of the then-undeveloped Western Australia expanse as Bordeaux-like. That attracted attention from a number of winemaking families to move into the region, starting with the founding of Vasse Felix in 1967. Today Margaret River is home to over 150 wineries, many of them highly-rated boutique producers producing world-class, award-winning wines.
The maritime-influenced Mediterranean climate of Margaret River – which offers a combination of soaking winter rains and moderate dry summers, coupled with well-drained gravelly soils – is considered to be most suited for the growing of Chardonnay. But Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, as well as other permitted Bordeaux varietals such as Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc, also thrive.
Examples of alternative Bordeaux blends from Margaret River are aplenty. An excellent example would be the Woodlands Wilyabrup Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot (it also sees a touch of Cabernet Franc), whose intensely complex flavours would give you a solid idea of what the terroir of Margaret River can offer in a Bordeaux-style wine
The Woodlands Wilyabrup Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot is available from Le Vigne Wines & Spirits.
One doesn’t quite expect Syria in the Middle East – war torn as it is today, and home to a large Islamic population – to make wine, but it does. Domaine Bargylus – Syria’s only winery – makes wine in the country’s Coastal Mountain Range, a massif located in northwestern Syria running parallel to the coast.
In fact, Domaine Bargylus is named after this region; the mountain range and its environs was called Bargylus during Hellenistic Greek and Roman times. This area was actually known to produce notable wines that graced the tables of Crusader states in the Levant, until the region was finally conquered by Salah ad-Din in the 12th century. And it didn’t make wine again until the first vintage from Domaine Bargylus flowed in 2006.
Now we have to admit the sole red wine produced by Domaine Bargylus – the Bargylus Grand Vin de Syrie Red – isn’t technically a Bordeaux-style wine. Made with a large proportion of Syrah (which isn’t a permitted Bordeaux varietal) along with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, it’s more akin to the blends that come out of South Australia. Nevertheless it can present a fun wine exploration for those who want to venture into the style in a more adventurous way.
The Bargylus Grand Vin de Syrie Red is available from Ewineasia.com.
Japan is best known for making sake. And in recent times it’s even established a strong reputation for its whiskies. But most people don’t realise Japan also produces wine. That’s mostly because their domestic production doesn’t get out of the country much; less than 0.1% of its total production is exported at all.
The spiritual centre of Japanese winemaking is located in Yamanashi Prefecture, which produces almost a third of Japan’s wine grape production. But a significant amount of domestically produced grapes – including the indigenous Koshu white varietal and Muscat Bailey A red varietal – are blended into imported wine (which is permitted in Japan).
Thankfully a number of small family-owned Japanese wineries are making headway for producing wines made from purely locally grown grapes that are of increasingly superior quality. One shining example would be Yamanashi’s Grace Winery, which makes, for example, the Grace Cuvee Misawa Rouge from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot grown in their estate vineyard in Akeno at the foothills of the Kayagatake mountains in Yamanashi. The wine is aged in French oak for 19 months, producing a wine that’s elegant with good fruit intensity and fine tannins.
You won’t expect a taste of Bordeaux made in Japan, but here we are.