by Nina Sventitsky
Mona Lisa: What!
Vinny: Nothing, you stick out like a sore thumb around here.
Mona Lisa: Me? What about you?
Vinny: I fit in better than you. At least I’m wearing cowboy boots.
Mona Lisa: Oh, yeah, you blend.
I know you do it. You have about an ounce of wine left in the bottle, it goes into the glass. Then if you do anything at all, do it big: “I’ll just open the next bottle and add it to the glass.” You’ve just created your own plonk, er, blend.
That’s (hopefully) not how it happens in the wine biz, right? Maybe.
The wine industry goes through phases in which one grape variety or style drives increases in consumption and spending, bringing in new blood. Oaky Chardonnay anyone? Prosecco? Moscato?
Right now, red wine blends are doing it. Best-sellers have gimmicky names like Barbed Wire Red and are developed for full-bodied fruitiness at inexpensive price points – under $20. Before you throw the concept of blends into the low-quality heap consider this: historically wine blends established the reputations of many Old World wine regions. Think Bordeaux, Rioja, Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Even your expensive Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is likely a blend.
The genius behind blending is that the winemaker is less beholden to the vagaries of climate and weather patterns, pestilence and summer-that-never-happens (hello 2011 on the West Coast!). Wine grapes ripen at different times of the harvest season, depending on variety. Blending grapes grown in your region with different harvest times ensures more consistency in the outcomes. And grape varieties have different levels of acid, tannin and potential alcohol. Classic blends from high-quality wine regions take advantage of what each grape offers.
First, let’s get a few things straight about why you might find a wine labeled red blend, instead of by varietal – Cabernet Sauvignon for example. Isn’t that bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 100% Cab? Does not have to be.
Federal regulations say at least 75% of the juice needs to be from that grape variety; some states regulate on the higher side (Oregon 90%, Washington 100%, for most grape varieties.)
A wine made up of 72% Cabernet Sauvignon misses the mark, so must be labeled something else. Hence, the blend label, or a fantasy name like Scot’s Secret, or Red Wine. The rest of the wine could be whatever grows in the area, or specific varieties blended to get a style or flavor profile. Don’t assume these wines are bottom feeders. Ever had Insignia from Joseph Phelps? It’s California’s (and Napa Valley’s) first red blend, Bordeaux-style. First year 1974 Cab Sauv dominated that blend. In 1975, Merlot topped it. At $199 I would hardly call it the dregs.
In the 1980’s/1990’s we saw a new term coming out of our North Coast wine regions (Napa, Sonoma) meritage. Not pronounced with a French accent, it’s a combination of merit and heritage. The term meant a wine blended from the traditional Bordeaux grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot), with no grape being 90% of the blend. Not visible much anymore on labels, back then it helped to distinguish and connect our great wine regions with the most famous region in the world, Bordeaux.
In the Old World wine regions, we don’t usually see varieties listed on the label, it’s not allowed in most established regions at the higher quality regulated levels, because great wines there are labeled for the place, not the grape. (It’s the concept behind terroir, another story for another time.) For instance, Bordeaux wines are usually blends of approved varieties. You have to know which style you like, and the grapes that float your boat. If you prefer a red wine with some tannin, more austere, a hint of black fruit on the nose, pipe tobacco, and some dried leaves, you might be looking for a “left bank” Bordeaux mainly with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and some Merlot. if you like softer, lusher, with dark cherry aromas and cherry pipe tobacco – it’s “right bank” for you. Merlot, Cabernet Franc will be in the bottle.
Blending is actually indicative of the skill of the winemaker; it separates the very talented from the workaday winemaker. And not only blending different varieties – blending different ‘lots’ of wine from various parts of the vineyard, blending wines aged in different oak barrels, all of that is what makes expensive wine worth it, and inexpensive wine an incredible bargain given some thought.
Maybe the most famous blend outside of Bordeaux is Châteuneuf-du-Pape, from the southern Rhone region of France. Up to 18 varieties may be blended into this wine, both reds and whites! The foundation of CdP is Grenache, which can be a somewhat juicy, earthy variety. CdP is a huge crowd-pleaser, with a lot of interest in the nose and on the palate. Each grape variety adds something to that famous wine.
Rioja, the wine region that employs me (full disclosure!) utilizes blends in it’s traditional styles; these wines are meant for decades of aging. The noble Tempranillo grape used in most aged Rioja wines needs a bit of the minor players to extend aging by adding tannins, acid, floral aromas. Hence, the blend helps to determine the success of Rioja wines.
Many Old World blends may be had at high quality for under $50. Interested in going for the approachable red blends? I do recommend some of the big box stores as pricing will be good, and remember you’re having fun here, not making cellaring decisions. Go first for Rhone blends (French and Californian) if you like moderate alcohol level, smoother and slightly juicier wines. Rioja and Chianti are more robust in aromas, will have higher acid, and savory palates. Then move on to blends with Cabernet, Merlot – Napa, Sonoma Bordeaux blends and Bordeaux itself. These big boys need some years to get balanced, so patience and investment is advised.
Finally, dip that toe into the crazy labels; you will find some surprises, and more than a handful of talented winemakers producing under these label disguises, to make easy-drinking wines that make them a ton of money.