What’s in a name and a number?

It’s an odd thing, but I suspect that there are more Bordeaux-style reds made in South Africa containing all five of the main varieties associated with that area than there are in Bordeaux itself. Especially given that malbec seems to be very scarce indeed there, and even petit verdot is pretty rare. The other three varieties in question are, of course, cabernet sauvignon, cab franc and merlot.

And in fact there is a sixth red-wine variety, also extremely scarce in Bordeaux: carménère, which is quite a big thing in Chile, just as malbec is in Argentina. Carménère is not a permitted variety in South Africa, which is why, I suppose, the idea of making wine with all SIX Bordeaux red varieties hasn’t caught on.

I do wonder why people are so fixated with including all five, just for the sake of it – certainly not because it’s necessary to balance the blend. I remember talking to one producer of a five-way blend who said that he always included just a tiny bit of malbec simply for the varietal count. It’s all an interesting tribute to the authority of one the world’s greatest wine regions, of course – but in some ways a typically “provincial” one, given that the region itself has moved away from such blends (if indeed there ever were many five-way blends there – let alone six-way ones.

It occurs to me now that perhaps it’s all the fault of the late Billy Hofmeyr of Welgemeend, who released the Cape’s first Bordeaux blend with the 1979 vintage. He thought that he’d included all five locally available varieties – but in fact, it was learnt many years later that what was planted at Welgemeend was not in fact petit verdot at all, but some other, little known variety (was it bouschet? I can’t remember; Louise Hofmeyr, who succeeded her father used to call it “petit mystery”).

This general topic came up briefly today at a small lunch at which the Tops at Spar team were showing a few of us their private-brand wines, including the Olive Brook Quintette, just such a Bordeaux-style blend (not bad, but a bit too sweet-fruited and thick-textured for my taste). Which indicates the extent to which some producers are proud of their (incomplete) use of all the varieties – they even allude to the count in the name.

For Quintette is not alone. The first such allusion, as far as I know, was De Toren’s grandly named Fusion V (where the V is the Roman numeral, unlike Vergelegen’s V, which is mostly cab, plus tiny dollops of just two others in the latest release 2007). But there are more: Raka Quinary, Constantia Glen Five (no messing around with fancy words there), and Gabrielskloof Five Arches. Can anyone think of any others?

There doesn’t seem to be the same fixation with the local wines made in the image, hopefully, of white Bordeaux – maybe because we tend to think of them more as semillon-sauvignon blanc blends, which is what they generally are. I don’t know of any serious producer (or any unserious one either) who has added in a bit of colombard, which is also a permitted variety in Bordeaux. Again, colombard is rarely used in Bordeaux proper. Muscadelle (which has nothing to do with any muscat grape, let alone our muscadel) is used a bit, especially in the sweet wines of Sauternes, but the other generally permitted whites are a pretty obscure bunch: sauvignon gris, ugni blanc, merlot blanc, ondenc and mauzac, if you are wondering.

Here’s an idea for some marketing-oriented local producer of red Bordeaux-style blends: bring in some carménère (easily available via Chile, perhaps) and be the first to have a six-way blend – you’ll be able to point out just how much more “authentic” it is than the stuff with a mere five varieties.

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