Understanding blending, when blending is used, and why it is used is hugely important to understanding a finished bottle of wine. Almost every wine you have ever tasted has been a blend of some sort.How is that possible?
When most people think of a blend of wine, they think of the bottom of the barrel juice from god knows where being combined in a concoction that is then fermented together and barreled for just a couple months, and on the shelf within a year. Understandable to think that because in the 80’s and 90’s there were a few wineries who produced millions of cases this aftermarket juice blend to maximize profit.
The Best Cabernet Sauvignon vintages…….ARE BLENDED?
Imagine that you are a winemaker with 10 acres of grapes located on a steady slope in the mountains of Napa Valley, that produces EXCELLENT fruit. This vineyard is on a slope, ranging in elevation almost 200ft from top to bottom. During harvest, these vines are picked over a 2 week period, because the warmer part of the vineyard (the lower end of the vineyard) has ripened more quickly than the cooler part (higher elevation).
You have a final amount of 30 tons of grapes,
10 tons of lower elevation grapes picked and fermented (Sept 23rd at 26%brix)
10 tons of mid range elevation picked and fermented (sept 30th at 25.5% brix)
10 tons of high elevation grapes picked and fermented (October 3rd at 26.2% brix)
These 3 groups have been separate from the moment they are harvested and are blended just before being put into barrel for aging. Not a completely finished product, but there will be noticeable differences in taste between each group picked. The difference in avg tempurature, the elevation, the stress put on the vines at each area of the vineyard, everything affects taste.
THE WINEMAKER WILL DO EXPERIMENTS TO SEE WHICH BLEND OF THESE GRAPES TASTES ABSOLUTELY BEST
(1)HIGH ELEVATION – Inky and dark, large tannins, dark fruit and spice components,
(2)MID ELEVATION – Medium Body, Dark cherry, blackberry, rich texture,
(3)LOW ELEVATION – Medium Body, heavy coffee notes, bright cherry,
lower acidity, spice and ripe fruit
Potentially, a winemaker could just release these separately, all with their own flavors and unique aspects of taste….BUT, what he can accomplish with a blend is to bring all these flavors together into one, creating balance and harmony between the very different flavors of each group.
END RESULT: 30% HIGH, 52% MID, 18% LOW
FINISHED WINE’S TASTING NOTES (the influence of each group): Aromas of (3)subtle espresso and (1)spice with (2,3)ripe cherry. Starts with rich and lush flavors(2) of rich ripe cherry(3), layered with dark blackberry(2) and currant(1), rounded tannins(2) and deep color(1), The mid-palate and finish are dominated by dark explosive fruit (1) and subtle notes of cocoa, cinnamon spice(2) and a beautiful lingering bright cherry (3).
THESE SAME CONCEPTS ARE USED IN CROSS VARIETAL BLENDING.
With cross-varietal blending, blends of multiple varietals, not necessarily closely related whatsoever, the goal is to create a blend that showcases the best of each varietals characteristics from our vineyards (just like we just did..the best of each elevation). The differences in taste are a bit more noticable between varietals, and this is where a winemaker’s experience in blending really kicks in. A percent here or a percent there can really make quite a difference. An interesting case to look at is wines from the Rhone Region of France. Some of the wines ranging in the 90euro to 150euro range have belnd of Syrah, Mouvedre, and Viognier (A WHITE WINE!!!) The winemakers found that a very small amount of Viognier would not take away from color, power or fruit, but gave the wine incredible floral characteristics they had not been able to achieve EVER before.
IN ADDITION TO THIS, ANOTHER LAYER OF BLENDING EXPERTISE CAN BE ADDED. EACH 10 TON GROUP CAN BE BARRELED SEPARATELY IN MULTIPLE TYPES OF BARRELS WITH DIFFERENT TYPES OF TOASTING LEVELS.
Some winemakers use 14 different types of barrels from different coopers (barrel makers), with specifics going all the way back to what part of the particular forest the wood came from to make the perfect blend of flavors for a SINGLE vintage of wine.
THE NAME OF THE GAME IS CREATING PURE COMPLEX FLAVORS AND BLENDING IS THE ABSOLUTE BEST WAY TO INSTIL THOSE QUALITIES INTO A WINE AT A PREMIUM LEVEL.
NOT 100% CABERNET SAUVINGON?
A large portion of the top wines in Napa and Sonoma say Cabernet Sauvignon on the label…that’s not all that is in there. Legally 75% must be of a particular varietal in order to label that bottle with the varietal name. THIS IS BY NO MEANS A BAD THING!!! THIS IS AN AWESOME THING FOR YOU, THE WINE LOVER.
A winemaker has a 25% blend to work with. If the cabernet sauvingon the winemaker has picked just needs a little more spice, he or she may put something like Malbec or Petite Verdot into the blend. If it needs riper components, Syrah might be used. If the wine is very heavy in tannin, Merlot will soften that up a bit and round out the structure creating a more enjoyable wine.
WHERE BLENDING GOES WRONG:
Back to what most initial interpretations of blended wines are. There are a select few wineries still who make LOADS of wine at a time. The wines are fermented in HUGE vats, sometimes even cement containers that store as much as 10 Olympic swimming pools worth at a time. They are picked together as bulk juice from terrible vineyards that produce the max amount of total tonnage that grapes can produce. They are all mashed up together, and that is the full extent of the concentration the proprietors spend on the actual flavor itself.
SO WHERE DOES THIS LEAVE YOU?
If you see a bottle on the shelf that IS a “Red Blend”, “Cuvee”, “Meritage”, etc, just do a little research on who makes it. If they make a TON of wine, and it’s in every store you have ever been to, PROBABLY NOT YOUR BEST BET. If they are a small producer, especially in the case with Meritage, it could just be one of the best wines you’ve ever tasted. Meritage is a good way to go if you typically love bold reds like Cabernet Sauvignon. To put “Meritage” on the bottle, a winery must get approval from the “Meritage Alliance“. It is much like getting approved as a top name DOCG grower in Italy, except the focus here is that it is not based on location, it is based on the quality of the fruit you put into the blend. A winery must use their best grapes in the blend, and it must be from 100% Bordeaux varietals.
I WILL BE HAPPY TO ANSWER MORE QUESTION. Please email if you do or leave comments and I will start another thread if necessary.
AS ALWAYS : If you aren’t currently following THE VINTAGE….ya..just do that.
Keep up to date on-
- local winemaking practices
- winemaking trends
- insights on the complex business of wine production
- things to look for when buying wine