The story of my fascination with the “Lost Grapes of Bordeaux” began with my wine club’s annual Valentines Day dinner extravaganza. My wife and I decided to make a weekend out of it and enjoy the fantastic food and perhaps discover some new (to us) wineries as well as attending my wine club’s wonderful dinner and wine pairing. My buddy and fellow club member recommended I book us a private tasting at O’Shaugnessy Vineyards on Napa’s Howell Mountain. Being a huge fan of Howell Mountain producers such as Robert Craig, Ladera Vineyards, and White Cottage, I was very eager to add a new Mountain Cab to my list. After booking our tasting, I went to their website to get some detail on their current releases. It was there that I found the makeup of their current release 2008 Cabernet:
81% Cabernet Sauvignon
3% St. Macaire
2% Cabernet Franc
1% Petit Verdot
All but two of these varietals were pretty standard for blending Bordeaux
style Cabernets but what in the sam hill are St. Macaire and Carmenere??? I’d never heard of these varietals before and so the quest was on to find out more.
First, A Bit of History
Prior to 1875, many of the finest houses in Bordeaux produced their wines with blends of what is known as The Bordeaux Six. These varietals comprised the make up of what was considered the finest and most expensive wines in the world.
The Bordeaux Six
There was also a seventh (Saint Macaire) and eighth (Gross Verdot) but we’ll get to that in a moment.
The Winds of Change
Between 1875 and 1892 virtually ALL of the vines in Bordeaux were wiped out by France’s first major Phylloxera infestation. Phylloxera is a small aphid like insect that devastates wine producing grape vines. Cab, Cab Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot were brought back by using American root stock. The others (Carménère, Saint Macaire, and Gross Verdot) virtually seemed to disappear…
Of the three lost grapes, Carménère was perhaps the hardest hit. Once the plague hit in earnest, Carménère was extremely hard to find and was difficult to grow as it dislikes the damp cool springs common to the Bordeaux region. It wasn’t until the 1990’s that it was discovered in Chile mistakenly sold as Merlot.
Was a rare red varietal grown on the right bank of the River Garonne,
south of Bordeaux and is named for the medieval town of Saint Macaire.
The town of Saint Macaire has a very rich history and was, in the 12th Century, a bustling merchant hub. Imported goods from the Caribean and from the Basque region were traded here. The region was known for its sweet white wines that went quite well with spicy imported delicacies from the Caribean and Basque country. However, the rare soft red wine was also very popular especially with the English who at the time were in control of much of Aquitaine region including Bordeaux. Because of this, the Saint Macaire varietal was used in several of the big Bordeaux house’s wines until it’s demise from the plague.
It has since been resurrected in California on Howell Mountain and in Australia where the Westend Winery makes a 100% Saint Macaire wine.
Gros Verdot has disappeared from Bordeaux but is still produced in small numbers in Chile, Argentina and in California.
So there you have it. What I thought would be a quick google turned into
a history lesson and a difficult search for information. Some of the best
info I had to glean from web pages in French (thanks Google Translate!).
It’s very cool that U.S, Australian, and South American producers are rediscovering these lost varietals once used by the “original gangsta’s” of wine. Also perhaps a bit perplexing that the great Bordeaux houses have not thought to revisit some of the blending styles that originally made them so famous.
I’ll give a full review on the O’Shaughnessy 2008 Cab soon.