Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot; a Studied Tasting

Clos de La Vieille Eglise, 2008Part of the studies for any wine certification (really, the fun part) is the tastings. The various certification programs have made a science out of the tastings, completely deductive, not unlike playing the game Clue. If the fruit is ripe and the aromas are coconut, vanilla and baking spice, the wine is new world. If the ripe fruit is black like plum or black currant and there is a savory thyme or rosemary aroma, then it is a new world Cabernet Sauvignon. If the ripe fruit is red like raspberry or red currant and there is a mint or eucalyptus aroma then it is a new world Merlot. Old world Cabs have the same black fruit but that fruit is tart rather than ripe. The savory herbs are there along with fennel, pepper or mushroom. Old world Merlots are tart red fruits also with mint or eucalyptus along with olive and maybe some mushroom. Easy, right?

The first wine we tasted had both raspberry and black currant. I’ll need more clues. The fruit was definitely ripe, not tart at all. There were some herb aromas, but also, vanilla. The ripeness of the fruit and the oak told me it must be a new world wine. I was torn on the grape, but because the tannins were more velvety, I went with Merlot. I got the grape right, but unless this was Castillon, California, I missed the region. Clos de La Vielle Eglise, 2008, Castillon Bordeaux 90% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. Note to self; time in the bottle will soften the fruit.

The next wine, also presented red and black fruit, red currants and blackberries. The quality of the fruit was very tart. And there was both an herbal and vegetal quality to the wine. There was a dominant minerality and some wet leaf aroma. This had to be old world, with the tart fruit as well as the mineral and earthy aromas. And because of the herbal aromas and strong tannins, it must be a Cabernet Sauvignon. Once again I got the grape right, but missed the region. Los Vascos, Colchagua, Chile, 2011. Note to self; 2011 was a cool year for Chile, thus the fruit is not as ripe.

Wine number three was dominant black fruit, black plums with some blueberry. The fruit was not just ripe, but jammy. There were floral aromas of rose petal potpourri and the oak use was obvious by the coconut aroma. This had to be a warm climate, new world with the jamminess and and oak. And I should have gone with Cabernet Sauvignon because of the black fruit. But the tannins were so soft and lovely, I thought it had to be a Merlot. Starmont, Napa, 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon. Note to self; go by the fruit, not the tannins when deducing the grape.

Our fourth wine had both red and black fruit, raspberries, red cherries, and black cherries. Again the fruit was jammy. This must be new world. There was a mint aroma along with chocolate, vanilla and toast. The mint told me Merlot, the chocolate, vanilla and toast told me oak, another sign of new world. There was, also a minerality to the wine, like iron, a telltale sign of a Washington State wine. Wildhaven, Horse Heaven, Merlot, 2013. When I filled out my sheet, however, I ignored the mint and called it a Cab. I did get the new world right. Note to self; don’t ignore what you are actually tasting.

In the end, I guessed Colonel Mustard with the candlestick but it was actually Miss Scarlet with the candlestick. I guess I’ll have to keep practicing!

Merlot Revisited

In preparation for an upcoming tasting of Merlot, I have done quite a bit of research on the grape, its best soils, and its best regions. I thought I would share with you what I have learned in the form of a quiz. You are welcome!

1) The Merlot grape can best be described as:
a) Early ripening with thick skin
b) Early ripening with thin skin
c) Late ripening with thick skin
d) Late ripening with thin skin

2) The Merlot grape has a flavor profile similar to that of:
a) Pinot Noir
b) Zinfandel
c) Cabernet Sauvignon
d) Sangiovese

3) Sandy soils:
a) Retain water and are acidic
b) Retain water and are alkaline
c) Do not retain water and are acidic
d) Do not retain water and are alkaline

4) The region known for its ‘crasse de fer’ soil is:
a) St. Émilion
b) Fronsac
c) Pomerol
d) Listrac

5) Two of the best regions in the US for Merlot are:
a) Sonoma and Virginia
b) Napa and Washington
c) Long Island and Washington
d) Central Coast and Oregon

6) Two other major players in the production of Merlot are:
a) Spain and Italy
b) Canada and Switzerland
c) Australia and Argentina
d) Italy and Chilé

Bonus Question #1 What is the connection between water retention and pH balance of the soil?
Bouns Question #2 What does ‘crasse de fer’ mean?
Extra Credit When was the last time you had a really good Merlot? What was it? Describe it.

Answers to be posted next week. Or you can look them up in Exploring Wine by CIA, Grapes and Wine by Oz Clark, The Wine Bible by Karen McNeil, The world Atlas of Wine by Johnson/Robinson


Well Blended Elements

Chateau de Barbe Blanche Lussac-Saint-Emilion 2009

I recently went to a Bordeaux wine tasting. We were able to compare and taste right bank vs. left bank Bordeaux. The difference between the Merlot heavy blend compared to the Cabernet Sauvignon heavy blend was what one would expect. But it was interesting to compare the softer fruitier Chateau de Barbe Blanch Lussac-Saint-Emilion to the heftier, more tannic Chateau Langoa Barton Saint-Julien. They were both beautiful wines, and both very well balanced in the four elements of tannins, alcohol, acidity, and fruit. However, the left bank wine’s harsher elements, tannin and acidity, were more firmly expressed. Likewise the right bank’s softer elements of fruit and alcohol came through more clearly.

A good friend recently told me that she’d been accused of being an angry person. Frankly, that’s one of the things I love about her. Anger can be her motivator. It is also an integral part of her wikedly, wonderful sense of humor. There are times when anger is our common bond. When I tell her that someone has been hurtful to my child. I will no longer welcome that person into my home, she understands completely. Anger is a protective force in any mother.

As long as they are in balance, I embrace all the elements of a wine, the soft and the harsh. A combination of different elements is what gives wine structure and makes wine interesting. Harsh elements coupled with soft elements make people interesting, too.

Responding to Terroir

Carmenere Grapes

Merlot Grapes

Cabernet Sauvignon Grapes

Three of the Bordeaux grapes can be traced to the same parents.  Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere, and Merlot are all genetically related to Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc.  All of these grapes grow in Bordeaux.  Yet, their terrior requirements are different.  Merlot, which is prevalent on the right bank of the Dordogne River, grows best in a cool, damp climate.  Clay soil holds in moisture, and Merlot vines do well in it.  Cabernet Sauvignon, the king of the left bank of the Gironde River needs heat and does best in a self-draining, gravel soil.  Carmenere, practically an identical twin to Merlot, has been all but banished from Bordeaux, but she has reappeared, unexpectedly in Chile, where she shuns too much water as well as too much heat.  Though genetically related, each of these grapes needs different soils and climates.


When my son was young and needed to be reprimanded, I very quickly learned that ‘time-out’ had absolutely no effect on him, nor did a scolding.  Molding his behavior was frustrating, until I discovered that taking away a toy as a consequence did have an effect on him.  He responded positively to that negative reinforcement.  My daughter, on the other hand, was unphased when I used the same technique on her.  She found another toy and continued playing uneffected.  However, she did respond positively to time-out.  For whatever reason, sitting in a chair in the kitchen was something she would avoid at all costs. 


Our parenting style is part of our children’s ‘terroir.’  We set the conditions and climates in which they will grow.  Not all children respond the same way to the same conditions.  Just like the grapes that are genetically related, but have different growing needs, so each child responds differently to different environments.  Finding what’s most nurturing for each of our children is one of the great challenges and rewards of parenting.

Noble Grapes

While there are hundreds of types of grapes from which wine can be made, there are only seven ‘noble’ grapes. They are Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Syrah for reds and in the whites Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay. These are considered the higher quality grapes, otherwise known as noble.

The qualities on which a wine is judged is its acidity, sweetness, alcohol, and with red wine, tannins. It’s not just important to have each of those qualities, but they must be in balance with each other to make a good wine.

Marketta Formeaux of Chateau Potelle says that, “I like to compare making wine to raising children, because both are long-term procedures where you make decisions on a daily basis. And the sum of those decisions makes the final product.” When we raise our children, we want them to be lively, kind, warm, and have strong character. We also want our children to be well-balanced.

Last Sunday, our Pastor led the service even though he had recently lost his father, and had just been to the memorial service the day before. My friend’s son, Ryan, stepped up to be worship leader. He had just graduated from high school the day before, and so was functioning on very little sleep having been up late with friends. During the prayer, our Pastor choked up a bit and paused to collect himself. Without hesitating, Ryan walked over to the pastor, and put his hand on his shoulder, and stood with him.

We’re so proud of our kids when they accomplish things like graduating from high school or earning their PhD from Seminary. At the front of the church last Sunday I saw two sons, one meeting his obligations even though he was so newly mourning. One comforting the other without hesitating. I don’t think either one could have done anything to make his parents more proud of him then these simple acts that expressed for each his noble character.