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Jefford on Monday: The Doctor Doctored

How much cross-regional blending went on in Europe's past?

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Picture: Hill of Hermitage (credit: Andrew Jefford)

Wines consumed locally would have been overwhelmingly unblended, if rough. Wines which were trundled or shipped off to major cities, by contrast, were a different matter. I suspect they were much more widely blended -- or adulterated -- than we realize. Who was checking? No one, mostly. How could they?

Regional imposture was the principal reason for the establishment of the AOC system in the 1930s: it was ‘origin’ which was being controlled, remember, not quality. And there were significant merchants (notably Charles Bouchard in Burgundy) who were violently opposed to the very idea of AOCs because they felt that limiting their blends to the wine of one region alone would have a negative effect on quality. Bouchard was convinced that, in most cases, doctored burgundy was better than pure.

The amelioration of ‘light’ Bordeaux wines with much darker wines from other regions (notably Cahors and Hermitage) is the most celebrated historical example of institutional cross-regional blending. I’ve always been puzzled by the notion of the Bordeaux hermitagé, if meant literally, because it was such a geographically complicated matter to arrange; it would have been much easier, surely, to use dark wines from Cahors which lay up-river, or those from Madiran which could be sourced via a short trip along the Atlantic coast. Why not, too, use a fatter or richer wine from the southern Rhône, from Languedoc or from Roussillon, too, rather than a Northern Rhône red which was almost as briskly acidic as the wine it was doctoring?

The subject is admirably discussed in John Livingstone-Learmonth’s magisterial The Wines of the Northern Rhône (2005). Livingstone-Learmonth suggests, surely correctly, that the use of Northern Rhône wines was only feasible after the construction of the Canal du Midi, which opened in 1681, and that there was indeed extensive use of wines from other parts of southern France for beefing up Bordeaux.

Here’s the nub, though. What a century or more of blending experience proved was that there was a kinship between great Syrah wine from the Northern Rhône (principally from Hermitage and Cornas) and great Médoc Cabernet Sauvignon which no other region could seem to match. That was why Bordeaux négociants like Nathaniel Johnston eventually took leases on vineyards in and around Hermitage, and why Calvet had an office in Tain. The wines seemed made for each other. Perhaps that’s borne out by the ease with which mature left-bank Bordeaux and Northern Rhône Syrah can still be confused in blind tasting.

A few weeks ago, I caught up on the phone with Caroline Frey; she had pulled up at a motorway service station in central France. She was travelling, with her small daughter, between Tain l’Hermitage and the southern Médoc, as she regularly does – as proprietress of both Jaboulet in Tain and Ch La Lagune at Ludon. After the Freys bought the house of Jaboulet in 2006, Caroline (dux of the Bordeaux University oenology class of 2003) realized that she was in a unique position to recreate a little history, and in every vintage since 2006, she had blended a barrel of La Chapelle with a barrel of La Lagune (2008 excepted, since there was no La Chapelle in that year) and bottled it, principally in large formats. That wine, called ‘Duo’, is not as yet in normal commercial circulation, though Sotheby’s were given some to sell in Hong Kong last September.

Now, though, there’s a 10,000-bottle equivalent for us commoners. It’s called Evidence, and the first vintage (2010) went on sale this summer (at 22€ a bottle). It’s a blend of purchased Syrah from different northern Rhône appellations (though Caroline doesn’t rule out possible purchases from the south, too) with lots which would normally go into La Lagune’s second wine, Le Moulin. The percentage of each regional component, though, will always be 50%. The wines are vinified and aged in their original locations, then the Bordeaux half is brought to Tain for blending and further ageing.

I first tasted it in Tain a few weeks ago with chief winemaker Jacques Desvernois and winemaker Ralph Garcin. We’d just tried the fragrant, suede-soft 2011 La Chapelle: a supermodel wine, all poise, freshness and veiled inner sweetness.

For Jacques and Ralph (two Tain palates), it was the Cabernet component which took the lead in Evidence, though they said they might perhaps have placed the whole blend somewhere in the Loire. To me, though, it clearly smelled and even tasted like a northern Rhône Syrah wine – spicy, fresh and floral. What the Bordeaux component seemed to bring above all was a wealth of tannins and overall ballast. Evidence even seemed to have more ‘bottom’ to it than La Chapelle, though less concentration and aromatic finesse.

In other words, the historical roles had been reversed. Agreed, a Pauillac hermitagé would never have been 50/50, but in the old days a smaller percentage of darker Rhône wine would have stiffened the sinews of what was probably an 11% or 11.5% Médocain, whereas a century-and-a-half later it is the Médocain, if anything, which is doing the stiffening. Climate? Vinification practices? Selection of raw materials? No doubt a peal of change for all of these plays a role.

The lesson of this singular blend, though, is an interesting one. We may assume that terroir means unchanging wine characters, fixed in their positions like stars in a constellation. The truth, though, is that terroir is what we make of it – and what we make of it never stops changing.

Jefford on Monday

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Award-winning writer Andrew Jefford's Monday column on Decanter.com