Blending has been commonly practiced by winemakers for centuries, on a most basic level, to achieve better balance and otherwise improve the overall quality of the various individual parts by creating a more complex sum. While the modern fine wine trend is for wines to edge ever closer toward expressing a sense of place in the clearest, least manipulated way, it is worth noting that a sensitively blended wine that allows all its components to shine with compelling poise can be just as evocative as any single-vineyard, single-variety wine. Odyssée is one such wine.
Today, legal limitations on the extent of blending include local labeling laws that restrict non-permitted grapes and the percentage of regionally sourced fruit within a wine that mentions a legally recognized, delimited region. In the good old days, going back a century or more, there were no such labeling rules. In the nineteenth and even into the early twentieth centuries, Bordeaux winemakers were known to “improve” their wines from difficult vintages with the addition of a little undeclared Northern Rhône Syrah. In celebration of this history, in 2004, Château Palmer began producing a small-lot, throwback blend of wines from their Margaux vines mixed with a small proportion of Syrah from Hermitage. Labeled as “Hermitage Historical XIXth Century Blend, Vin de France,” it continues to be produced in select vintages and has something of a cult following.
Odyssée - a wine started in 2015 as a similar throwback blend by Pierre Graffeuille, managing director of Château Léoville Las Cases, and his friend in the Rhône, Matthieu Dumarcher—is now into its fourth vintage release. “At first, we tried blending wine from the Médoc with just Syrah from the Rhône,” said Graffeuille. “It didn’t work for us. We found that Grenache was a better complement. Grenache is plump, juicy and sweet—it matches better, in fact. We decided to create a new style of ‘Hermitage blend.’ So, the base is Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache, blended with other varieties.”
The other significant difference between Odyssée and its historical inspiration is that this wine is not a Bordeaux base with just a splash of the Rhône. “We are looking at around a 60/40 blend. We want the blend to be shared almost equally between both regions,” said Graffeuille.
As for the sources of the grapes, “In the Médoc, we have old vines, to the north of Saint-Estèphe,” Graffeuille explained. “These are 50- to 60-year-old vines, located just in front of the river with a high-density planting. The vineyard in the Southern Rhône belongs to us. It is a higher-altitude vineyard, about 30 to 40 kilometers north of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The vines are around 60- to 70-years-old, and the farming is 100% organic.”
This winemaking odyssey begins in the respective regions, then the blending is done in the Rhône.
“I make the Cabernet Sauvignon component in Bordeaux and then transfer it to the Rhône. I buy used Las Cases barrels for this purpose. We transport the wine in the barrel, then we do the blending in the Rhône. We use barrels and amphora to age the Rhône components. We do a pre-blend and then a final blend before bottling because we like to keep the Cabernet Sauvignon a little longer in barrels than the Rhône varieties. Total aging runs 18-22 months.”
The Odyssée blend has evolved since its first iterations in 2015 and 2016. “In 2017 and in 2018, we added some Counoise, showing off this spicy, aromatic, almost forgotten variety. Also, this is a late-ripening variety, bringing some freshness and balance to these warmer vintages in the Rhône.” From a production level of 3,000 bottles in 2015, 8,000 bottles were made in 2018. “But we won’t go more than 12,000 bottles,” Graffeuille assured me, “to keep the quality.”
Before I tasted the wines, I have to confess I had doubts, just looking at grape variety blends. But, as with any great wine, style and character are reflections of not just varieties but places. I love this wine because it so clearly, beautifully conveys attributes of both the Médoc and the Southern Rhône. What’s more, they shine together beautifully. Straight Cabernet Sauvignon from the northern Médoc can be very structured, bordering on austere. Grenache from the Southern Rhône maintains the variety’s plush texture and generosity, but it is more savory/earthier in style than, say, from Australia or California, melding seamlessly with the restraint of the Médoc, while the Cabernet gives it backbone and lift. After tasting all four vintages, I think this northern Médoc/Southern Rhône marriage is inspired and downright delicious.
Equally exciting is Odyssée’s price. The vintages currently on the market sell for around $35/bottle in the USA, UK and France.
2016 : 94/100
A blend of 47% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Grenache, 12% Syrah, 9% Mourvèdre, 8% Merlot and 2% Petit Verdot, the 2016 Odyssée has a medium to deep garnet color, charging out of the glass with bold scents of blueberry preserves, chocolate-covered cherries and blackberry pie, giving way to notions of smoked meats, blackcurrant pastilles, licorice and cracked black pepper. The full-bodied palate (14.5% alcohol) is full-on rich and seductive, delivering bags of savory-laced black and blue fruits with a gorgeous velvety texture and seamless freshness, finishing long with loads of pepper and mineral sparks. Delicious right now, it is still very youthful and primary. It should easily cellar for another 20 years or more.