Cabernet Sauvignon: Bordeaux versus Languedoc

Cabernet Sauvignon is a grape that conjures up immediate impressions of stern black fruits, austere if not herbaceous when young, slowly giving way to more varied and savory impressions as the tannins resolve and the fruits lighten up. It’s not a grape where there are violent feelings about yields, as there are with Pinot Noir, and there is a far wider range of wines, from entry levels to cults. I thought it might be interesting to see how much typicity Cabernet Sauvignon displays in entry level wines, and whether Bordeaux remains competitive with the Languedoc, where there have been significant plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, presently amounting to 18,000 hectares compared to Bordeaux’s 28,000 hectares. The mandate for comparison was that all wines should come in bottles and should be priced under $15 (£10).

My first impression was of the similarities of the wines rather than their differences. Whether they were exclusively Cabernet Sauvignon or blends where Cabernet Sauvignon was as little as half the total (the rest usually being Merlot, but sometimes in Bordeaux including Cabernet Franc), the general style for entry level wines was for soft, red fruits with a sweet impression on the palate. No, I’m not accusing the producers of leaving residual sugar, but there was a soft, glycerin-like impression on many of the wines, which was reinforced by a slightly aromatic impression that to me conflicts with the character of Cabernet. The only consistent difference between Bordeaux and Languedoc is that the wines of the Languedoc tended to just slightly more evident aromatics, and most of the Bordeaux had a slightly greater impression of tannic dryness on the finish. None of the wines had any trace of herbaceousness: this has now completely disappeared from the lexicon of descriptors for Cabernet Sauvignon irrespective of origin or vintage. If there is indeed a common stylistic objective based on suppleness of fruits and minimal tannins, the Languedoc’s warmer climate gives it an advantage.

The main difference between the regions is price: the Languedoc wines are on average around two thirds of the price of the Bordeaux. This bangs home the difficulty of Bordeaux in surviving at the AOC level: it’s not competitive with the Languedoc, let alone with the New World (although admittedly there’s more difference of style when you compare with the New World). Part of that difference is due to the restrictions of the Appellation Contrôlée in Bordeaux, compared to the greater freedom in the Vin de Pays of the Languedoc. One major place for this effect is the higher yields allowed in the Vin de Pays, from which I was expecting the wines to be less concentrated. However, virtually all the wines struck me as not exactly over cropped, but certainly liable to benefit from any increase in concentration. I really could not see what benefit came from the yield limits around 50 hl/ha in the AOC compared with potentially higher yields in the Vin de Pays. The Languedoc wines have a marketing advantage that they all state Cabernet Sauvignon on the label, whereas almost all the Bordeaux require detailed examination of the back label to determine the character of the blend.

The wine that actually most conformed to my impression of what an entry level Bordeaux should taste like these days did not come from Bordeaux: it was Gerard Bertrand’s Cabernet Sauvignon from the Pays d’Oc, which unusually for the region retained some typicity of Cabernet in the form of a restraint to the black fruits. The most interesting comparison was between Baron Philippe de Rothschild’s Mouton Cadet, for many years the archetypal Bordeaux blend, and his Cadet d’Oc. The Cadet d’Oc was my runner-up from the Languedoc, with some impressions of Cabernet Sauvignon, whereas the Mouton Cadet gave more of a interdenominational impression, with soft fruits, pleasant enough, but no sense of constituent varieties or place of origin.

The two most expensive wines offered an interesting contrast. I thought the Bordeaux Réserve Spéciale from Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) was trading on the name of Chateau Lafite; it was a little riper and more rounded than most from Bordeaux, but there were wines from Languedoc at half the price level that seemed to offer a similar flavor spectrum. Château Larose Trintaudon, a rather large Cru Bourgeois from the Haut Médoc offered the most classic impression of Bordeaux in this tasting, which is to say that the fruits gave a savory rather than aromatic impression.

One moral from the tasting is that it’s hard at this level if you expect Cabernet Sauvignon to mean more than a marketing term on the label. It leaves me wondering whether there is really any point to varietal wines at the entry level, since they rarely offer any pointer to the character of wines at higher levels.

Two from Baron Philippe de Rothschild

Bordeaux, Mouton Cadet, 2009

Initial impressions are quite round and fruity, with black fruits of cherries and plums, and sweet ripe aromatics giving an impression that’s more of the south than Bordeaux; until a characteristic dryness kicks in the finish, this does not seem particular representative of Cabernet (it has 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Cabernet Franc to the 65% Merlot). There isn’t really quite enough fruit density or flavor interest to counteract the dryness of the finish.   13.5% 85 Drink now-2015.

Vin de Pays d’Oc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Baron Philippe de Rothschild, 2009

Fairly restrained on the nose with some hints of spicy black fruits, which follow through to the palate. This has a touch of high toned aromatics suggestive of black cherries or plums, and there are some firm tannins drying the finish. Well made, with the edges of Cabernet distinctly softened in the southern style, but retaining enough tannic backbone to justify its varietal label.   13.5% 86 Drink now-2016.

Best entry level Cabernet Sauvignon

Vin de Pays d’Oc, Cabernet Sauvignon Réserve Spéciale, Gérard Bertrand, 2008

Slightly spicy suggestions to the black fruits of the nose. Some sense of character to the palate, with those spices showing against the black fruits, and an impression of ripe tannins on the finish. The tannins are ripe enough to complement rather than detract from the fruits This is one of the few entry level wines from Languedoc which seem to speak of Cabernet: perhaps it’s more overtly aromatic than you usually, find in Bordeaux, but it conforms more closely to my impression of what an entry level Bordeaux should offer in the modern climate than most wines from Bordeaux actually offer.   13.0% 87 Drink now-2016.

The most classic Cabernet Sauvignon

Château Larose Trintaudon, Haut-Médoc, 2006

The nose offers some slightly spicy red and black fruits with a suggestion of character, which follows through to the palate. This wasn’t a very generous vintage, and that’s reflected in the wine, but there is a good balance with the fruits showing some flavor variety; the finish is a bit flattened with some dryness showing from tannins, but this is unmistakably a wine from the Médoc that is true to its origins. However, I would not place this very high up the hierarchy of Cru Bourgeois.   13.0% 87 Drink now-2016.

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Where Has All the Cabernet Gone?

Bordeaux is the world’s largest producer of Cabernet Sauvignon, with 28,000 hectares planted. Only a small part – perhaps 15% – goes into wines dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon; the rest is blended into wines where the dominant component is Merlot. Generally unknown, but running a fairly close second in plantings, is the south of France, with 22,000 hectares altogether in Languedoc and Provence (mostly in Languedoc). But how many interesting Cabernet-driven do you know from the south? What are they doing with all that Cabernet?

I spent a week in the Languedoc last month looking for Cabernet as part of the research for my book Claret & Cabs. I found half a dozen interesting producers and obtained a renewed respect for the practice of blending, whether with Bordeaux varieties or others. I wanted to know whether Cabernet Sauvignon in the south retained a typicity like Bordeaux or more resembled the warmer climates where it is grown in the New World.

I started my tour at Finca Narraza in Roussillon, not far from Perpignan just north of the Pyrenees, where Corinne and Gérard le Jan have a twenty year old vineyard of Cabernet Sauvignon. Interestingly, there’s just as much vintage variation here as in Bordeaux. Cabernet does well when the climate is Atlantic, but can be difficult to handle when it rains and the wind comes from the mountains or when the weather is too hot and it ripens too quickly. The main cuvée is an equal blend of Cabernet and Syrah, and the dominant influence seems to vary with the year. In either case, it’s fair to say that the wine shows more the aromatic influence of the south than of Bordeaux.

An interesting opportunity to see what a Bordeaux blend achieves in the south came from Verena Wyss, near Pezenas.  In the Belcanto cuvée, the structure of the Cabernet comes through quite clearly, but the aromatics are more those of the south, fruity and perfumed, than of the more savory tradition of Bordeaux. “There is no problem ripening here; it  is warmer and drier than Bordeaux. The training system needs to protect the fruit against excess heat, the opposite of tradition in Bordeaux where it needs to ensure good sun exposure. The problem here is not getting good maturity, it is avoiding over-maturity; the only answer is to harvest when the grapes are ready and not wait too long,” says Verena.

Another interesting insight came from the ability of Petit Verdot to ripen reliably in this climate,  which enables Verena to produce the La Tonga blend of 60% Cabernet to 40% Petit Verdot. Her I felt that the spiciness of Petit Verdot dominated the palate, making an attractive young wine, but I wondered whether it would age well. I received a partial answer when I visited Marc Benin at the Domaine de Ravanès, just a little farther west, where there is both a 100% Petit Verdot and a 50:50 blend of Petit Verdot with Merlot. “I don’t want to make a Bordeaux, I want to make a wine of the Languedoc, but with the Bordelais varieties. Here the Petit Verdot achieves the same maturity as the Cabernet Sauvignon and gives an interesting, structured wine,” Marc told me. Tasting these wines from 2002 and 2000 showed that Petit Verdot really matures very slowly indeed; I was left uncertain whether it would ultimately develop the same interest with age as Cabernet Sauvignon. But a vertical tasting of monovarietal Cabernet Sauvignon from 2007 back to 1995 showed some difficulty in getting a complete structural balance. The youngest vintage showed nicely concentrated fruits, but still a good way to go to maturity. “The Cabernet can be too strong. It’s not ready to drink straight away, you need to wait 3-4 years,” Marc said, explaining why he now blends the Cabernet with Merlot. Older vintages showed nice development, much along the lines of traditional Bordeaux, with savory and even herbaceous elements coming out. I was left with the impression that, just as in Bordeaux itself, blending produces a more complete and complex wine. A similar classic impression came from the Cabernet-Merlot blends at Domaine de Perdiguier, close by, where I revisited the question as to the typicity of Cabernet Sauvignon in the south. These wines sufficiently resembled Bordeaux AOC as to provoke me into realizing that by now I had made the transition into looking for something different in the south.

The pioneer for Cabernet Sauvignon in the Languedoc is Mas de Daumas Gassac, where the blend has now settled down at around 80% Cabernet Sauvignon with the remaining 20% consisting of a wide range of varieties, including the traditional Bordeaux varieties. The other varieties vary somewhat: initially they were mostly Malbec, Tannat, and Merlot; by 1990 they were described as Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Merlot; and today the label just says “several other varieties.” Daumas Gassac is not looking for the modern jammy fruity style. “We belong more to the Bordeaux 1961 attitude—wine with 12.5% alcohol and good acidity. Only 15% new oak is used to get finesse. The wine is no more typical of Bordeaux than it is Languedoc,” says Samuel Guibert, the current winemaker.

Almost adjacent, however, is the Domaine de la  Grange des Pères, where the attitude is almost the antithesis of Daumas Gassac but the wines are equally interesting. Daumas Gassac today, albeit way off the beaten track, is a modern facility with a snazzy tasting room, and constant trek of visitors.  Grange des Pères has a utilitarian appearance, it’s not especially easy to make an appointment with Laurent Vaillé who is nothing if not reticent, but the rendezvous, if successful, takes place in the working cave, where samples can be tasted from barriques. The wine is a blend of roughly equal proportions of Syrah and Mourvèdre with a minor component of 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. Minor, but essential. “The Cabernet Sauvignon is like salt in food. I do not want Cabernet Sauvignon to dominate my assemblage. Grange des Pères should have a southern character, but with freshness and that’s what the Cabernet Sauvignon brings,” says Laurent. Tasting barrel samples, you can see what each variety brings to the blend. All are rich and powerful with a good level of tannins, the Syrah full of rich, deep back fruits, the Mourvèdre distinctly spicy, and the Cabernet herbal and fresh. It’s not so much the acidity of the Cabernet as such, but the tightness of its structure that freshens the blend. Without it, the wine would have more of that jammy fruit character of warm climates. So here the Cabernet in effect is playing a moderating role on the sheer fruit character of the other varieties: almost exactly the opposite of the role it plays elsewhere as a “cépage ameliorateur” in strengthening weak varieties.

Over in Provence, the pioneer for blending Cabernet Sauvignon with Syrah was Eloi Dürrbach, who planted the vineyards at Domaine de Trévallon, near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, just south of Avignon, in 1973. In the (relatively) cool microclimate at Trévallon, the two cépages play the traditional complementary roles: Cabernet Sauvignon can be austere, but Syrah softens it (without acquiring the jammy notes of the southern Rhône). Barrel samples of the two varieties before assemblage (which takes place only just before bottling) show more similarities than differences: in the 2010 vintage, both cépages showed dense black fruits with good tannic support, with the Syrah just a touch more aromatic and the Cabernet just a touch sterner. The interesting comparison was with a pre-assemblage blend, made because there wasn’t enough of either separate cépage to fill another foudre.  The increase of complexity was obvious, combining roundness with precision, sternness with aromatics. Usually the Syrah is a little more evident as an influence than the Cabernet, says Antoine Dürrbach, but it varies from year to year. There is no attempt here at instant gratification: usually the wine does not open up for ten years, he told me, but then it will last another decade. Indeed, the 2001 vintage was just beginning to open up in October 2011. I would be inclined to say that it has something of the aromatics of the south combined with the texture of Bordeaux. The whole is certainly greater than you might expect from the sum of the parts tasting the individual varieties.

My last stop to investigate blends of Cabernet with southern varieties was at Domaine Richeaume, farther east in Provence, located just underneath Mont Sainte Victoire. The backdrop to the vineyards could be a painting by Cézanne. There’s a small production of monovarietal Cabernet Sauvignon, the Columelle cuvée of Cabernet and Syrah, with a small component of Merlot, and the Tradition cuvée which is equal Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache. The Cabernet gives the impression that seems to prevail with a monovarietal all the way from Bordeaux to Provence: more precision and elegance than the other varieties or even than the blends, but less completeness, just not quite filling in entirely on the mid palate. Syrah by itself goes the other way: lovely aromatics to the fore. Columelle is a good compromise: Syrah aromatics with that structure of Cabernet underneath. I wasn’t quite sure with the Tradition whether Grenache was filling in the fleshiness the Cabernet lacks by itself, or whether the Cabernet was giving structure to an amorphous Grenache, but it did not seem to me that the marriage was a complementary as Cabernet and Merlot.

They are quite disdainful in Bordeaux about growing Cabernet in the south. “It’s a big mistake,” the Directeur at one second growth blurted out when I asked what he thought about growing Cabernet there. “There isn’t any Cabernet in Languedoc,” one senior figure on the Bordeaux wine scene said, when I mentioned that I was visiting Cabernet producers there. But there are certainly interesting wines, based on Cabernet Sauvignon or containing a significant proportion of it, in Languedoc and Provence. They are no challenge to Bordeaux, not because they are necessarily inferior to it, but because their overall flavor spectrum is different: whether the Cabernet is a monovarietal, blended with Bordeaux varieties, or blended with other varieties, it takes on at least a partial tinge of the aromatics of the south. But none of the top wines fit into the rules for AOC, and they have not been imitated to any significant extent by others. So they create no halo effect to lift up the region. And in terms of the total production of Cabernet Sauvignon in Languedoc and Provence, my attempts to identify wines of character might account perhaps for a couple of hundred of the twenty thousand hectares. What are they doing with the rest?

The vast majority of Cabernet Sauvignon in the Languedoc goes into relatively inexpensive brands, produced on a relatively large scale for France. In fact, the Languedoc is France’s largest source for varietal-labeled Cabernet Sauvignon.  (The authorities would not give me any official figures for production of Cabernet Sauvignon in the Vin de Pays of the Languedoc, but I calculate there must be around 10 million cases of Cabernet Sauvignon or wines based on Cabernet. This compares with a total production for generic AOC Bordeaux of around 25 million cases, most of which has Cabernet Sauvignon only as a minor component.) Should the Bordelais be quite so disdainful of the varietal-labeled brands under the Vin de Pays labels? Given the inroads that have been made into the market at the level of Bordeaux AOC by varietal-labeled New World wines, isn’t the Languedoc more a threat by fifth column since it combines the mystique of being French with the varietal-labeling that appeals at this level of the market, and a more forward, fruit-driven style?

Finca Narraza, Vin de France, 2008

This equal blend of Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon shows an impenetrable black color. A touch of reduction on the nose rapidly blows off. The black fruits of cherries and plums show an impressive density on the palate, supported by fresh acidity and firm tannins that are integrating nicely. The impression in this vintage is dominated more by Syrah than Cabernet, as indicated by the rich, plummy aromatics. It’s a more powerful wine than the 2009, albeit just a touch rustic in its overall impression. It will no doubt show greater smoothness in a year or so and should drink well for up to a decade. 89 Drink 2013-2021.

Finca Narraza, Vin de France, Cuvée Raoul Blondin, 2008

An impenetrable black color with a stern nose, although this is 80% Syrah and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. Some savage notes to the nose resemble Syrahs of the northern Rhone. The dense black fruits on the palate are ripe and unctuous, deep and long, with a chocolaty texture. The Cabernet Sauvignon gives extra backbone to this basically Syrah-dominated wine. The structure is somewhat buried under the density of fruits but should support aging for a decade. A very fine effort. 90 Drink 2013-2021.

Verena Wyss, IGP d’Oc, La Tonga, 2007

This wine is a blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Petit Verdot.  Spicy nose has intense aromatics. The classic notes of Petit Verdot are really evident, with a peppery spiciness on the nose showing as all-spice on the palate, which is full of flavor and character. The deep fruits show as blackcurrants and plums, with ripe tannins in the background. The Petit Verdot gives that Rolls Royce sense of power, but does it make the flavor spectrum just a touch monotonic? 90 Drink-2020.

Verena Wyss, IGP d’Oc, Belcanto, 2007

Belcanto is a Bordeaux-like blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, and 10% Petit Verdot. It shows a medium to deep ruby color with a touch of garnet indicating the first development. The restrained nose gives an impression of black fruit with some floral notes. The underlying structure shows the influence of Cabernet Sauvignon quite clearly, with smooth black fruits supported by ripe tannins. At first the tannins hide behind the fruits, but then they come through to show as dryness on the finish. This elegant wine is certainly Old World not New World, but shows a touch more overt aromatics than would be found in Bordeaux. 90 Drink now-2021.

Domaine de Ravanès, Coteaux de Murveil VDP, Petit Verdot, 2008

Petit Verdot matures well in the Languedoc, offering the opportunity to make a varietal wine. Actually, the Petit Verdot at Ravanès is usually kept for blending into the top wines, but in this year it was interesting enough to make a monovarietal, without wood exposure. The year had a dilute character overall, but the wine shows the purity of the Petit Verdot fruits. The spicy nose might easily lead you to believe there had been oak exposure. Dense fruits show purity of line similar to varietal Cabernet. This shows very well as a young wine, but there is a certain direct focus that suggests aging won’t bring out real flavor complexity. You can certainly see what Petit Verdot brings to a blend. 88 Drink now-2016.

Domaine de Ravanès, Coteaux de Murveil VDP, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007

This was the last year a monovarietal Cabernet was produced. It is still a dark ruby purple, showing very much a Cabernet nose with austere black fruits. Ripe and rich fruits dominate the palate, supported by ripe tannins. Very good extract but still not quite ready. Nice texture: there’s no exposure to wood so the forcefulness of the Cabernet fruits comes right through from this good year. 88 Drink 2013-2018.

Château de Perdiguier, Vin de Pays des Coteaux d’Enserune, Cuvee d’en Auger, 2007

This blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Merlot spends a year in new oak. It has more evident concentration and roundness than the regular bottling. This vintage is still a deep ruby color with little sign of development. Black fruits on the nose have an austere edge with a touch of smoke and chocolate. The palate of ripe black fruits shows a touch of classic herbaceousness on the finish, but accompanied by a chocolaty texture. Tannic support shows as dryness on the finish. 88 Drink now-2017.

Château de Perdiguier, Vin de Pays des Coteaux d’Enserune, Cuvee d’en Auger, 2001

Dark color with only a slight touch of garnet developing. Restrained but classic nose with those herbaceous hints of bell peppers. Nicely rounded on the palate with good freshness and attack; the bell peppers come back on the finish. This gives a rather classic impression of a Cabernet Sauvignon dominated wine, although it’s half Cabernet and half Merlot. 87 Drink now-2014.

Mas de Daumas Gassac, Vin de Pays de l’Hérault, 2008

This is an elegant wine with Cabernet Sauvignon represented in a lighter style. Fresh on the nose and palate with a slight spiciness and some aromatic complexity. The Cabernet is identified by notes of cedar, with  lively fruits on the palate which show a faint savory touch of the garrigue. For the south this is a restrained style. Good variety of flavor across the palate supported by an unobtrusive structure with tannins well in the background.  88 Drink-2017

Mas de Daumas Gassac, Vin de Pays de l’Hérault, 2006

Nose shows fresh red fruits and a touch of nuts with intimations of complexity. Elegant fruits on the palate, following the red spectrum of the nose. There’s a touch of savory influence from the garrigue. Opening up in the glass, the wine shows its delicacy, yet with the fine structure and tannic support of Cabernet. It brings back memories of some of the more delicate older vintages of Bordeaux.  90 Drink-2016

Domaine de Trévallon, 2001

This vintage is just beginning to start its evolution. It’s a medium density color with some garnet on the rim. The nose is quite developed, and shows gunflint with a touch of some tertiary barnyard aromas. The palate is less developed than the nose, showing ripe blackcurrants and plums, but the tertiary notes come back on the finish. Tannins show as dryness on the finish. Personally I’d wait another couple of years for the peak, after which the wine should hold for some time.  91 Drink now-2020.

Domaine Richeaume, Vin de France, Columelle, 2009

Black fruits drive the nose. Freshness on the palate cuts the ripeness of the fruits, which show the typical aromatics of Syrah. Although the Syrah dominates the palate, there’s a sense of restraint and finesse, which is perhaps due to the Cabernet. The overall impression is fine grained and elegant. 30% of American oak was used here. 90 Drink 2012-2020.

Domaine Richeaume, Vin de France, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2008

Some evolution on the nose has occurred in the last year. It’s a touch reduced, with some hints of gunflint and a touch of barnyard. The black fruits are quite stern on the palate. This is less open, less overtly fruity than the Cabernet blends. The good fruit concentration comes back on the finish where ripe tannins are evident. The developed notes of barnyard certainly cut the fruits: it’s an interesting question whether they will become complex enough to offset the lightening of concentration as further maturation occurs. This wine was matured exclusively in French oak. 88  Drink 2012-2018.