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The High Price of "Blending" Grapes

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Sep 7, 2006 3:38pm ET

You might be surprised to learn – as I was – that two of the most expensive red wine grapes in Napa Valley this year are a couple of orphans from Bordeaux.

I’m talking about Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, both of which are used primarily for blending with Cabernet Sauvignon and occasionally with Merlot.

While the suggested market price for Cabernet Sauvignon is $3,900 to $4,800 a ton, on the open market, Franc is selling in the same price range. And Petit Verdot is the cost leader, going for $4,500 to $5,500 a ton.

Before you get carried away thinking that prices for these grapes are out of whack, bear in mind that these prices are based largely on those grapes’ limited supply and the fact they’re in demand.

It’s the latter element – why California vintners would really want these grapes for their blends – that has me baffled.

Here’s why: With a few exceptions, these two grapes rarely make exceptional wines in California. Yesterday I tasted a few Francs, Malbecs and Petit Verdots and was disappointed. I couldn’t imagine any of these wines adding anything positive to a good Cabernet. On top of it, these were expensive wines.

Yes, Franc can add texture and aromatics (and is the most viable of the three grapes as a stand-alone wine--after all it's the dominant grape in Cheval-Blanc and in Loire reds such as Chinon). But the Malbecs (despite their success in Argentina) and Verdots were dark, tannic and angular.

That’s why they’re blending grapes.

But I wonder whether they really help the cuvées with color or structure, or are more of a fashion statement by vintners who want to claim they use the Bordeaux "recipe"?

I used to think the same thing about Merlot being blended with Cabernet. Why add a weedy, herbal wine to a rich, full- bodied Cabernet Sauvignon?

Hoyt Hill Jr
Nashville, TN —  September 7, 2006 5:33pm ET
My personal opinion is that most decisions made in the Napa Valley are motivated by one factor - greed - so I would assume that vintners are using Petit Verdot and Malbec because they belive their wines will command higher prices as a result.
Brad Coelho
New York City —  September 7, 2006 5:39pm ET
The Bordeaux blending as an insurance policy in France (which I assume was mostly due to weather irregularities and uneven ripening amongst varietals) doesn't seem to have the same relevance in California. From your post, you mentioned Petit Verdot and Malbec negatively as being dark, tannic and angular. From that alone, having 1-2% of either won't contribute much to the blend as far as tannins, but I'd imagine they would offer some more color. Cab Franc definitely can impart some floral/tobacco aromatics and an added spicy dimension (which decent Petit Verdot may do as well). Merlot's plushness along w/ Cab Sauvignon's structure seem to marry well...I'd assume that when the winemakers blend their cuvees they conclude w/ a blend that offers the most complexity and balance; which ultimately involves varying percentages of diverse varietals depending on the vintage. I don't think that a grape variety alone (even when it's unimpressive) is the same animal as when it's blended. Like incredients in a recipe tha don't make much sense by themselves, but do serve as an important contributor to the final dish. It doesn't make enough sense to me that a modern winemaker would toss in varietals out of superficial 'Bordeaux cache' alone...at the very least they must believe the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
Neil Koffler
New York, NY —  September 7, 2006 5:47pm ET
Fair questions, James.

I've yet to taste California Petit Verdot or Malbec and I've found the only in Argentina (more or less) element part of the charm of Malbec from there. I have enjoyed Sinskey's Cabernet Franc which contains a good deal Cabernet Sauvignon, though.

Perhaps the best answer to wondering why these grapes are so highly priced on the open market is to gravitate to estate wines whenever possible. That would seem to avoid those vintners looking for a quick purchase to purchase a fashionable blend or varietal.

Mark Lewis
Napa —  September 7, 2006 7:50pm ET
I enjoy some blended style wines such as Franciscan's Maginficat. The Cabernet Franc and Malbec add a lot to the wine. However, Napa Valley Cabernet is the among the best in the world. So why would you want to blend anything with the best Cabernet? Perhaps some Napa vinters just like that style of winemaking.
Andrew Compton
Anchorage, —  September 7, 2006 8:44pm ET
Hoyt,I am curious why you feel that the goal of a winery should be any different than the goal of any other company. The object of business is to maximize profit while producing a product. If they can get $XX for their product, great for them. Greed and a desire to turn a profit CANNOT be confused. - Andy
Steven Mirassou
Livermore, CA —  September 8, 2006 12:52am ET
I think it is too early to dismiss the potential positive contribution PV, Cab Franc, and Malbec can make when blended with Cabernet. I don't think one can evaluate these wines with Cabernet glasses on. None of them, including Merlot, has the special combination of structure, fruit, intensity, color, and ageability that Cabernet has. It makes them different, to be sure...inferior, I am not so positive.

The fact that there is relatively little of these grapes planted (excluding Merlot) compared to Cabernet means that they have not been planted in as many different vineyard sites/terroirs, with as many clones, with as much financial incentive as Cabernet. Though we may find, when it said and done, that Cabernet was/is the best Bordeaux varietal, it does not, in itself, diminish the quality or importance of these other grapes.

Regarding prices of fruit, last year's annual crop report showed an average price of Sonoma County Pinot Noir in the $3500-4500/ton price range, with scores of individual transactions contributing to this price. The high price was ~$17,000/ton for a lot of Sonoma fruit. After I picked up my jaw, I noticed the lot consisted of a single ton of fruit. This statistical sample was so small as to be irrelevant. This same dynamic is at play, I am sure, in regard to the fruit prices of Franc, PV, and Malbec. As more is planted these price spikes become interesting only in their anomalous nature.
Dan Jaworek
Chicago —  September 8, 2006 9:19am ET
I wonder what the grapes will actually be used for. James suggests that they will become part of the blend with Cab. But he also stated that he tased some stand alone wines made from cab franc and petit verdot. It wouldn't be the first time I've seen some blending grapes bottled on their own with sub par results. In either case, it seems to me to be another example of CA not knowing what they want to do or how they want to do it. Europe had to learn everything the hard way - by trial and error. Once they figured out what worked best and where, they locked it in by law. But since CA has modeled its wines after those of Europe (mainly France) they should have realized the benefit of the existing knowledge. Instead, you see a merry go round of grape varieties that seem to be put out there almost as a marketing ploy. Lets face it, Cab, Merlot, Chard., Grun Velt, and even Viognier have all had their moments of popularity. Now Pinot Noir is the hot variety. It seems to be a convenient circumstance created by the wine drinking public that keeps the merry go round in motion. And in the confusion of trying to stay with the trend, it keeps people from asking the real question - why? Why drink Pinot? Why drink Merlot? Why drink a Cab? When done right, they can all be excellent wines. But you should have expectations of them. When a CA pinot drinks like a merlot because it is over ripe and flabby, it should be noted and (in my opinion) avoided. This is why I consider French wines to still be the gold standard. When our wines and palates need to be recalibrated, we return to the source. But as long as the public insists on riding this merry go round of the most popular grape varieties there will be no reason to perfect what is already being made. Instead wine makers will continue to try to accomodate the demand with supply. As such, the gold standard will (in my opinion) continue to be in France. Dan J
Ryan Dougherty
Napa, CA —  September 8, 2006 10:55am ET
This perhaps a question for another section of the Spectator website, and slightly off topic. But could you please instruct as to how to interpret "angular" in a tasting note? Are you referring to the way that it develops across the palette?
John Gavin
CA —  September 8, 2006 11:07am ET
Wow, I'm feeling ahead of the curve for once. I wrote about this on my blog almost 3 weeks ago:.http://quaffability.com/?p=134
Hoyt Hill Jr
Nashville, TN —  September 8, 2006 11:32am ET
Andrew, I totally agree with your distinction between profit and greed. However, Screaming Eagle at $500 is greed, not profit. As is Opus One at $160-$190. As are all the other "cult wines" whose prices are ludicrous. Equally applicable to 2005 Bordeaux, of course. Leroy Musigny, with an annual production of a few cases at $990? Profit. First growth Bordeaux with annual production of 20,000 cases+ at $900?Greed.
Lee Romaine
Boca —  September 8, 2006 4:53pm ET
Why so negative on these fabulous grape varieties? I have had several very good Petit Verdots and Malbecs from California.Such as Benziger's Imagery Series, Jekyl even did Reserve versions that were great. Caymus even did Cabernet Franc once, 1987. It drank well in 2004...yes, it did get lost in my cellar. PV and Malbec make full-bodied, hearty wines that satisfy the soul. Don't listen to Laube. He doesn't even buy Bordeaux anymore, according to his blog. Too expensive ( oh, right...this from someone who gets to try all the greatest wines of our times ). Give me a break. And try them for free.

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