The Noblesse of Cabernet Sauvignon

Visiting chateaux in the Médoc as research for my book on Cabernet Sauvignon, I spent a morning at Chateau Latour. The visit did not get off to a very promising start. We were met by Gérant (general manager), Frédéric Engerer. He started by asking me if I had seen an article in a recent issue of the World of Fine Wine, about blending Cabernet Sauvignon. I thought for a moment and realized this must be the article I wrote in which I asked whether Cabernet grown in Bordeaux or in the south of France could make a complete wine or whether it needs to be blended. I concluded that there is something intrinsic about Cabernet Sauvignon, at least as grown in France, that requires a blending partner (although not necessarily always the classic partners of Bordeaux). “Ah,” I said, “I wrote that.” “Ahah,” said M. Engerer, pouncing, “I disagree with everything you said, it is all wrong, it is complete nonsense.” We had what you might call an interesting discussion.

I should let M. Engerer speak in his own words. He is passionate about Cabernet Sauvignon. “You look at single varieties, you look at the blend, you say the blend is better, so Cabernet needs Merlot. This is absolute nonsense. It’s all a matter of Cabernet Sauvignon—it’s the quality of Cabernet Sauvignon alone that determines the quality. The only reason that we put in some Merlot is that it’s old, it’s located on gravelly soil, it behaves like Cabernet Sauvignon; the Merlot is as masculine as the Cabernet Sauvignon (the vines are 80 year old Merlot on relatively sandy soil.)  It’s not that we need Merlot, you need to add it when the Cabernet Sauvignon is not up to the standard. I am happy with Cabernet Sauvignon alone, it is not the Merlot that makes a difference. You see huge differences in the Cabernet Sauvignon from different plots, in the flesh around the tannins, in some plots it is missing, and in these the Merlot may be necessary.”

M. Engerer sees Cabernet Sauvignon through the prism of Chateau Latour. “The character of Latour depends on the terroir. Maybe we should plant some Syrah but it is a bit complicated. You would see the same effect. The nobility of the whole thing is just the terroir. I know your feelings for Cabernet Sauvignon, I don’t want to diminish its importance, but it needs the terroir. The Cabernet Sauvignon is just the instrument, it is just the tool to express differences between terroirs.”

“So you feel the character of Latour would show in the same way with a different variety?” I asked. “I don’t know. With the same variety I measure huge differences in quality between the different parts of the appellation. I would think this would be true with another grape variety. The question (you are asking) is whether Cabernet Sauvignon is neutral enough as a variety to express the terroir better (than another variety).”

I followed up by asking, “In that case, do you regard Latour more as blend of Cabernet Sauvignon from different plots rather than a blend of varieties?” “Well, Latour is a single vineyard, only a limited number of plots make the Grand Vin. I want to plant Cabernet Sauvignon instead of Merlot in some areas. First growth terroir maybe allows Cabernet Sauvignon (alone) to make great wine. Should we go to Cabernet Sauvignon alone in all the best areas? That’s a very good question. The [increasing] maturity of Cabernet Sauvignon, especially the flesh around the tannins, makes Merlot more and more unnecessary. The main cause is better viticulture and canopy management. When Merlot is planted in the best areas, they would probably make an even greater Cabernet Sauvignon.”

This prompted me to wonder, “Well the real question is what will you do when you replant, will Merlot be replaced by Cabernet Sauvignon?” The answer was partly historical and partly pragmatic. “The Grand Enclos originally was Cabernet Sauvignon with some complantation with Cabernet Franc. This was replanted with Cabernet Sauvignon alone.  But the decision may be to put in Merlot in some places. All the bottom slopes are harvested separately – we call this the Cabernet d’Argile (Cabernet from clay). It may be better to plant Merlot in these areas, so there may be a few rows of Merlot in the lower, wetter, areas. Otherwise the question is what to do when you could make either good Merlot or Cabernet?”

“The style of Latour, this incredible length, backbone, refinement, is better expressed by Cabernet Sauvignon than Merlot. When the Cabernet Sauvignon is ripe, it’s always a step up above the best Merlot. When we look at the ideal Merlots in Pomerol, we think that the natural playground of Merlot is not in the Médoc. Our Merlots, even the oldest, are always a little lower, with the exception perhaps of one or two vats. If only we could have a vat or two of Merlot from Pétrus…” M. Engerer concluded wistfully.

I thought I would pursue the key question. “You’ve never made a wine that is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon?” “No, but we’ve tried. Every year we taste the final blend without the two vats of Merlot, and honestly, I always prefer the ones with the Merlot because there’s a little essential touch from the old Merlot vines that adds interest in the blend. But among individual vats, Cabernet Sauvignon is always top… There’s a noblesse to Cabernet, you know, it has everything, freshness, purity of line, fruit, when we have ripe Cabernet Sauvignon it’s at 13%, and inevitably the Merlot is at 14%—I’m not at all a fan of high alcohol wines.”

The logical extension of M. Engerer’s position, it seems to me, is to argue that if you took only your very best Cabernet lots, you would not need a blending partner, and you could make a complete wine. But if only the very best lots could do this, the collateral question becomes what proportion of your Cabernet is good enough to make a complete wine. This is more a matter of intellectual curiosity than a practical question, of course. In places other than Bordeaux, perhaps they’d be more tempted to take out some top lots of Cabernet Sauvignon for a monovarietal special cuvée—but of course then you come back to the question of what that does to your Grand Vin. All of this is interesting food for thought, but practically speaking, my view remains that you get better wines by blending in Bordeaux. But I’m going to give M. Engerer the last word. “The world is full of intellectual rubbish.”


2 thoughts on “The Noblesse of Cabernet Sauvignon

  1. “…it has everything, freshness, purity of line, fruit, when we have ripe Cabernet…”
    Great post, definitely will always be an interesting topic to debate about. Quick question, when Mr. Engerer mentioned “purity of line” to me I relate that to ‘Focus’ in a wine. Is that where he was going or was he speaking of something different. Anyway, enjoy the the blogs, keep it up.

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