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Profile Five: How Varietals Differ from Taste Profiles and Where We Dive into Merlot, Bordeaux and Stags’ Leap

Profile Five: How Varietals Differ from Taste Profiles and Where We Dive into Merlot, Bordeaux and Stags’ Leap

This is the third in our series of deeper dives into each of our profiles, the origins of their varietals, why they taste the way they do and why we blend instead of sticking to a single grape for our wines. 

This series also explores why we choose to make our wines based on taste profile versus single varietals. With a taste profile, we are going after an experience, an expectation the drinker has of what they love to taste, feel and smell in a glass of wine. We’re not out to recreate wine, but we are out to recreate your experience of having a go-to glass of wine at home, what we like to call your house wine – a glass you know you’re going to love, every single time. Varietals are subject to the vagaries of the yearly experience of that grape, and if we stuck with varietals, we couldn’t produce the same experience for you time after time. Don’t get us wrong, we love varietals, it’s just not what we do. 

In this article, we’re tapping into our big, bold, smooth Profile Five. This wine is deep ruby red, full bodied, rich and savory with notes of dark fruit, black currant and spice. It’s big and complex with strong tannins, high acidity, a dry finish and 0% residual sugar. Along with wines like merlot and cabernet sauvignon, this wine is made in the dry style which means that during fermentation, the yeast converts all (or nearly all) of the sugar in the grape must into alcohol. When residual sugar is left behind, you get a sweeter wine, like our Profile Six. 

A wine with zero residual sugar can still have sweeter tastes of ripe fruit like cherries and plums in merlot and blackcurrant (cassis), black cherry and blackberry in cabernet sauvignon. In fact those notes are what we all love in our Profile Five. 

Stag’s Leap Winery, 2016 Image © Jason. C. Hansen

But how did California winemakers like ourselves even get into cabs and merlots in the first place? Let’s look at a pivotal slice of California wine history. Back in 1965 Warren Winiarski bought three acres on top of Howell Mountain on the northeast side of Napa Valley. He started planting his own grapes while working as Robert Mondavi’s first winemaker, where he stayed until 1968. Fast forward nearly a decade to 1976, and we find Winiarski (along with Jim Barrett for his Chardonnay) putting Napa on the map when both wines won the blind tasting at the Judgment of Paris – in France, against French wines (this wasn’t supposed to happen and the French were dismayed). Winiarski won for his 1973 Stags’ Leap Cabernet Sauvignon. He was one of the first guys to plant merlot and cabernet sauvignon and bottle them at 100% single varietal – something neither the French or the Californians were doing. Note that many times a bottle labeled a single grape like merlot isn’t made with 100% merlot grapes. Merlot is often blended with a few percentages of other grapes, like cabernet sauvignon or malbec to round out the texture, flavor and aroma of the wine. You can read more on blending wines here if you like, but know that wines labeled as a single varietal in the US only have to be 75% of their named grape. 

But back to Winiarski. He helped make merlot and cabernet sauvignon the highly popular wines they are today – cabernet sauvignon is now the most planted vine in the world, followed only by it’s half-sibling merlot. Merlot and cabernet sauvignon share a parent grape, the cabernet franc. When cross cultivated with magdeleine noire you get merlot, when crossed with sauvignon blanc you get cabernet sauvignon. Wines from this family contain methoxypyrazines (pyrazines for short), naturally occurring compounds in the skins and stems that give the wine herbal and green bell pepper notes. Merlot and cabernet sauvignon are often blended together to help tone down the sometimes overly tannic cab and add structure to the softer merlot. These two grapes, along with malbec, cabernet franc, petit verdot and carmenère are also used in making the famous Bordeaux wines of France. Our Profile Five, while not a strict Bordeaux blend, finds that Goldilocks balance where it’s not too tannic or overly structured, but has just the right amount of umph to it. While not a strict Bordeaux, it is similar to a right bank Bordeaux style. 

The Garonne and Dordogne confluence marking the left and right banks of Bordeaux.

So what does that even mean? Well, without getting too deep into the details, there is a left and a right bank of an estuary that flows through the region of Bordeaux. The left bank is more like old New York money and the right bank is a little like the wild wild west. The winemakers on the left bank hold to tradition and history. The garagistes, or “garage wine” makers of the right bank tend to be smaller operations, family-style vineyards with winemakers eschewing the traditional Bordeaux wines that needed several years of aging to be drinkable, for a more modern, accessible wine that is less tannic, more fruit forward, bigger and bolder. In a nutshell, our fabulous Profile Five. 

So why do winemakers combine several grapes into a single wine? We’ve described it before as the art of creating an experience, as you sip, that follows the curve of a football. Why a football? There’s a clear start, a gradual inflation to the fullness of the middle and then a slow tapering off to the finish. When we blend our wines, we’re after hitting all the points on your palate in just the right amount at just the right times. You wouldn’t want a soccer ball shaped wine, the tasates wouldn’t have the space or arc to hit your palate in different places as you sip. Let’s try it with Bordeaux as an example: The cabernet franc brings that herbal, green piece with strong fruits like cranberry and bing cherries and hits your palate up front with its tannins, then fades off at the back end of your palate. Then the merlot hits you mid-palate, highlighting the darker fruits like raspberries, black cherries and plums while softening the tannins, and filling out the body. Malbec boosts the fruit component and fills out that football shape even more, giving the wine a big, rounded feeling. Cabernet sauvignon adds  intensity and weight, with its strong tannins and black currant and herb notes, hitting you with more intensity at the end. The cab the powerhouse behind the fullness of left bank Bordeauxs and our Profile Five, while merlot is the player that smoothes out the roughness and brings in the warmth. Petit verdot is the finisher, added in small amounts for its intensity in the mid-palate with sweeter, ripe flavors while at the same time giving the finish just the right structure. 

We use Bordeaux as our example because all of the grapes in our Profile Five hail from the Bordeaux region of France, with the cabernet franc coming originally from the Libournais area and traveling in the 17th century to the Loire Valley via the Duke of Richelieu, (AKA Cardinal Richelieu). Cabernet sauvignon, as an offspring of a chance encounter of cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc vines, comes from the same region, as does merlot. Petit verdot likely predates all of these grapes, originally planted in the same area by the Romans, getting its name from its small grapes that take longer to open than the other varietals in Bordeaux, with some berries still green at harvest.

Because all of these varietals come from the same general area, they all prefer a terroir similar to their ancestral land: well draining, rather poor soil made of limestone, clay, gravel or a mix of some or all of the above. They like moderate climates, with a little stress from lower rainfall (this helps the roots grow and seek nutrients that lie deeper in the earth). They like warm days and cool nights. All of this is why these varietals also do so well in Northern California and gave Winiarski the foundation (pun intended) to create the award winning wines he did. Winiarski made wine for decades at Stags’ Leap, only selling the vineyards and winery in 2007. He now owns Arcadia Vineyards, in the Coombsville AVA of Napa Valley, and produces chardonnay, his famous cabernet sauvignon and merlot. He is also, at 92 years ripe, helping to educate other vignerons and winemakers on how to address climate change, and how to adjust to this new-weather landscape so they can create sustainability in their vineyards and cultivate the art of winemaking in a new era. 

We like his thinking and are well aware of the impact of climate change on grapes and of the wine industry on climate change. We’re here to do something about it, with a BOXT (equivalent to four bottles of wine) creating 50% less carbon emissions than just a single bottle. It’s also the reason we are a direct to consumer winery – by cutting out the middleman we also save exponential amounts in extra transit emissions. For reference, to ship just one 750ml bottle from Napa, CA to New York City costs 4.4 pounds of C02e (carbon dioxide equivalent).

We haven’t convinced everyone to shift away from bottles yet, and it’s all about just taking steps towards a less carbon heavy footprint. And here at BOXT, we love a good taste test. We recommend trying these wines to get a sense of the varietals that go into our Profile Five. We don’t list a petit verdot, because it is rarely bottled by itself due to its high acid and high tannin profile.

Stags’ Leap Merlot, 2018
Beaucanon Estate Cabernet Franc Napa
Carmen Cabernet Sauvignon Delanz, 2018

As always, we’d love to hear what you think about these wines, or anything else you want to share with us about your experience with BOXT or wine in general. Drop us a line at hello@drinkboxt.com or find us on instagram @drinkboxt.

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