During service a customer asks you to recommend an Australian alternative for his two favorite French wines. Recommend alternative wines that have a similar style, quality, and price. You must account for the factors in the vineyard and winery which make your choices appropriate. Also explain any important differences in the wine.
Before reading on, make sure to read through Part 1 of this short answer quiz, in which the wine in question was Mersault Premier Cru. The second wine our fancy client is asking about: Margaux. So, let’s move to the southwestern portion of France to…Bordeaux.
Again, I’m going to take this one step at a time.
Bordeaux Climate and Grape Growing
Bordeaux, in general, has a moderate, maritime climate that benefits from the warming ocean current coming from the Gulf Stream, which helps to extend the region’s overall growing season. The risks here, though, come from the Atlantic, which brings rain throughout the year, including during flowering and fruit set. This promotes rot, can dilute the flavors at harvest, and creates great vintage variation from year to year. FUN FACT: That vintage variation, combined with the fact that the variety of grapes grown in Bordeaux flower and ripen at different paces, is the primary reason why all Bordeaux red wines and most Bordeaux white wines are blends. (I, seriously, thought they were just trying to make life complicated.)
GRAPE FACT: Thirteen varieties are permitted under the appellation laws in Bordeaux. The most important: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle.
As I’m learning more about Bordeaux, I’m learning how, more than anything else, the soil truly defines what grape variety is planted where. SOIL FACT: Different grape varieties thrive on different levels of nutrients, soil moisture, and of course heat—which some soils absorb and radiate back better than others. For example, soils that are dark in color or have and abundance of stone and rock can absorb and re-radiate heat much better than lighter-colored soils or those with softer, sandier textures. Furthermore, high rock/stone content means better drainage, forcing the vine to work for its water and nutrients and focus its energy on grape production (instead of the leafy green stuff). Alternatively, those softer soils, say those that are clay-based, retain moisture longer, which means that their temperature drops and stays cooler longer (think about when you step in a puddle and have soggy socks…cold feet). This affects the vine: it can delay bud burst and overall development of the vine and grapes. In extreme cases, if the soil becomes water logged, it can actually kill the vine.
So, you can see that how, with thirteen different varieties that mature at different paces and require different levels of heat and water throughout the growing season (which, as stated, includes unpredictable rainfall throughout the year) all planted within a fairly small region—a small region, I might add, that has a very prestigious reputation in the wine producing world—winemakers in Bordeaux need to ensure that the right varieties are planted in the right locations with the right soil types.
Just a little insight. But I digress…
Again, I’m not going to break down every region in Bordeaux. For the sake of answering this question, I’m going to focus in on the Left Bank, as this will take closer to identifying what style of wine our client is looking to replicate.
The Left Bank
To set the scene, The Dordogne and Garonne rivers combine to form the Gironde Estuary and divide Bordeaux vineyards into three broad areas. The wine growing regions to the west and south of the river is called The Left Bank. It includes the Médoc, Graves, and Sauternes districts. We’ll have a closer look at each of these districts in future posts. Today, I want to zoom in to the Médoc.
Médoc can be further divided into two regions, if you will. The northern portion, called the Bas-Médoc (typically simply labelled Médoc on labels), is home to more clay-based soils. Ah! And what do we know about clay? It holds more water, stays cooler—so it wouldn’t be great for either an early budder or a variety that requires more warmth to fully develop—like, say Cabernet Sauvignon. Thus, plantings in this northern portion of Médoc are predominantly Merlot, the blends Merlot-based, and the wines produced are mostly intended for early-drinking. (Going back to our question, I don’t think that’s what our client is into.)
The more southern portion of the Médoc is called Haut-Médoc; it is considered the more “highly rated” of the two Médoc areas. Within Haut-Médoc, there are several smaller appellations, the most renowned being:
Bingo. We found Margaux on the Left Bank of Bordeax in the southern portion of the Haut-Médoc. So what do we know about this area that will help us deduce what our fancy client likes? This portion of Médoc does, indeed, have a more stone-based soil. Here, the heat-loving, late-budding Cabernet Sauvignon thrives and, thus, the wines have a higher percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon in them. So, the core of its fruit flavors will be that classic black current; there will be notes of cedar from oak usage. These wines can be a bit austere in their youth, grippy with tannins, but have long aging potential; time will both develop flavors further and soften those tannins. The wine in question does not indicate that it is from a cru classe (ie., one that is awarded a classification status in the 1855 Classification). I’m going to make the argument, then, that, like the premier cru our client asked about from Burgundy, he wants a high-quality wine, but isn’t going to spend and exorbitant amount of money. (And, let’s face it, since the classification system was written—in cement apparently—in 1855, the classification can be thought of as, well, a marketing gimmick. [My insight/opinion; not from the WSET literature.])
More on the Bordeaux classification system(s) in a later post. Now that we’ve identified what wine and wine style our French wine-loving client enjoys, let’s hop on that plane again and pop over to Australia to see if we can find something suitably comparable for him.
As mentioned, in Part 1, Australia is huge—so there is a massive variety of climates and soils found throughout the country. In general, because of Australia’s latitude, most of the winegrape growing regions are considered warm or hot climate regions. However, proximity to the Southern Ocean, the Indian Ocean or the Murray River system can help moderate those conditions, as can planting at altitude. So, there’s actually a broad range of grapes that can be grown and styles of wines that can be produced.
And, again, for the benefit of this question, I’m not going to go through each state or wine region individually, but focus in on the region(s) that best answer this question.
For that, I’m going to start in South Australia.
RANDOM FACT: Although South Australia is in the the southern portion of the country, Victoria is actually the southern-most state in (mainland) Australia. I’m saying this out loud because it was super confusing to me when I first started studying.
The majority of Australia’s wines are produced in South Australia and most of the vineyards are located on the south-east side. Some of the best-known wine regions are located in South Australia:
- Barossa Valley
- Eden Valley
- Clare Valley
- Adelaide Hills
- McClaren Vale
With the exception of Barossa Valley and Coonawara, the other four regions are actually considered cool to moderate climates. Eden and Clare Valley, despite their names, are actually elevated on plateaus just above the Barossa Valley, so it is aspect and altitude that keeps the vines cool. Adelaide hills, as the name implies, also plants the vineyards at altitude, with some plantings reaching above 400 meters (just over 1,300 feet). McClaren Vale, due to its proximity to the Southern Ocean, receives cool breezes in the afternoon that temperate the otherwise warm climate. I’ll discuss these regions in more detail in later posts, but for now I want to zero in on the two regions that will help us answer this question: the warmer Barossa Valley and Coonawara.
Barossa Valley has a warm, dry climate. While the Valley itself is quite fertile, the best vineyards are planted amongst soils filled with ironstone, quartz, limestone, and red clay. It is here that Cabernet Sauvignon can ripen fully and provide a well-structured red wine. And that is why I’m including it on this list of potential answers to this question. But I by no means think that this is the perfect answer to our Margaux-loving client’s question. Indeed, the heart of Barossa is truly the wines made from the old bush vines of Syrah. Classic Barossa Valley Shiraz exudes black fruits, soft tannins, and is often aged in American oak. These wines are meant for aging, softening those tannins even further, and developing aromas of leather and spice. Allowing my client to know that there will be some unfamiliar background notes due to the American oak aging, I would argue that a Barossa Valley Shiraz may just be a better substitute than the regions’s Cabernet Sauvignon. Thoughts on that?
Better yet would be a Cabernet Sauvignon coming from the Coonawara region. The region kisses the border of Victoria and is home to a very distinctive terra rossa soil which lays atop a limestone subsoils. Though further inland, the area receives cooling currents from the Antarctic, so the maritime climate is moderate. Cloud coverage helps tame the summer temperatures as well. Coonawara is considered one of the best places in the country for Cabernet Sauvignon and, indeed, it is the most widely planted grape here. The Cabernet coming out of the region is concentrated, structured, with flavors and aromas of cassis and, as Karen MacNeil so eloquently states, “something green—not unripe green bell pepper, but rather a more sophisticated suggestion of chaparral.” These wines are known to age well, something our client, I’m sure will appreciate.
Although there are other up-and-coming wine producing regions, when we talk about WA what we’re really talking about is Margaret River. Margaret River is a coastal region with a warm maritime climate. Again, I’m going to quote the lovely MacNeil here because this quote actually helped me remember what the climate was like during my WSET Level 2: “Margaret River wine region, where the great, warm Indian Ocean and the cold Southern Ocean splash together.”
Rainfall is high (compared to other AU wine regions), but luckily the majority of that rain tends to fall during the winter months when the grapes are dormant. And it is because of this warm maritime climate, combined with the region’s gravelly soils that the first wine-pioneers who came to Margaret River focused on planting Bordeaux varieties, and why, today, the region is considered to be a “little-Bordeaux.” So it is that Cabernet Sauvignon is widely planted, producing structured, elegant Cabernet Sauvignon as both a varietal wine as well as blended with Merlot, producing Bordeaux-inspired red blends.
While answers 1, 1a, and 2 are all perfectly fine answers, I think that, at the end of the day, the wine I would serve my client looking for a Margaux-like Australian wine would be a Cabernet Sauvignon from the Margaret River.
How’d I do? Is there another answer you’d like to add?
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