Of the eighty plus wines we have released over the past three years, fifteen have been blends. Labeled as either “Red Wine” or “White Wine,” these bottlings contain less than 75% of any single grape variety, such as Cabernet Sauvignon or the more esoteric white grape Semillon. This month, for our white selection, we released a unique blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier, and Chenin Blanc. Our monthly red is a blend of Syrah and Barbera, two other grape varieties that you won’t see blended together anywhere else. One of our main value points is helping our members narrow down their wine options, but we’ve found that these blends aren’t any less marketable than their varietally labeled counterparts. Working as a sommelier for ten years, I have also found that many guests are not only open to blends, but come in to the restaurant actually looking to enjoy a blend.
Winemakers around the world have crafted wines from multiple different grape varieties for thousands of years, their reasons as varied as the styles created. The tradition of blending in California dates back to the time when the grapevine was first introduced. Italian immigrants brought with them Zinfandel, known as Primitivo back in their homeland. Although Zinfandel is known for producing big, full-bodied, lush wines, the dark color we often associate with the grape actually comes from other grapes that have long been planted alongside it. These days, many Zinfandels carry the term “Old Vine” on the label. Although this is not an official designation, the label is used by Zinfandel vineyards in the state whose founding dates back to the 1860’s. These vineyards were generally not planted solely with Zinfandel, but were co-planted with things such as Petite Sirah, Carignane, and Alicante Bouschet. All of these grapes help deepen the color and firm up the structure of wines made from the thin-skinned Zinfandel grape. These distinctions may not have been understood in the late 1800s, but today the small quantities of concentrated fruit that each of these old vines produce continue to be coveted by winemakers seeking the bold, spicy style resulting from these vineyard sites. In fact, you will still see some wines labeled as “Mixed Blacks,” the pre-Prohibition Era term for these blends from places like Sonoma and Lodi.
While “Field Blends” in California are much less common than elsewhere. While the depth and concentration provided by fruit from very old vines has long been prized in red wines by the drinking public, vine age for white grapes has been deemed less important by many winemakers. In the white-wine growing region of Alsace in far eastern France, however, growers have long cultivated many different kinds of grapes in their vineyards for harvesting and fermenting together. Known as “Edelzwicker” or “Gentil,” blends such as these are intended to express the character of the vineyard rather than the character of any single grape variety. This is a true expression of terroir.
In Champagne, blending has always been of utmost importance in the development of the region as a luxury brand itself, as well as in the development of individual Champagne houses as global brands. Each harvest, many Champagne companies will buy grapes from dozens, if not hundreds, of small farmers. There are three main grape varieties in the region. Chardonnay provides freshness and acidity. Pinot Noir brings structure. And Pinot Meunier can add fruitiness. Both Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are red grapes, pressed off of their skins quickly and carefully so they can be blended in the production of golden Champagnes.
Almost all Champagne, in addition to being a blend with different grape varieties from different subregions and different growers, also combines several different vintages. Many Champagne drinkers reach for their favorite Champagne house, without variation, year after year. Due to the northerly climate of the region, however, weather conditions during the growing season vary drastically from one vintage year to the next. If bottled as a single vintage, a brand such as Veuve Clicquot could taste very different each time a fan purchased it. By blending several different vintages together, the winemaker is able to maintain a consistent “house style.”
Many of the world’s most expensive blends in the world come from the Bordeaux region of France. Here, for centuries, Merlot has been blended with significant amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc to create full-bodied, sometimes highly ageable wines. Part of this is due to several different soil types, each suited to growing one of the three main grapes better than others. Additionally, Merlot ripens earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon, meaning growers can often count on a decent harvest of quality grapes even if poor conditions arrive before Cabernet is ready to be picked. Merlot is also valued for its comparatively soft tannic structure. Cabernet Sauvignon from this cool climate would be harsh and astringent. Merlot’s lush, plummy profile helps create a more round texture on the palate.
Although Napa Valley enjoys a much drier, sunnier growing season when compared to Bordeaux, Merlot plantings are crucial to the flagship style of Cabernet Sauvignon produced there. In 1979, the Mondavi family partnered with the famed Rothschild family of Bordeaux to craft the first vintage of Opus One. Napa was still in its infancy as a modern wine region and the $50 price tag was the highest at the time. A blend of 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Cabernet Franc, and 4% Merlot, it could have been labeled as Cabernet Sauvignon. Still, it was labeled as Red Wine, certainly a less prestigious term at the time, but a risk taken by the proprietors as a way of emphasizing blending in the Bordeaux tradition.
Today, many Napa Cabernet-based wines continue to incorporate significant amounts of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petite Verdot. In the early 2000’s, many of these wines were labeled as Meritage, a term that required wineries to meet certain stipulations as well as pay annual dues to the Meritage Alliance. Once sought after as a sign of quality amongst consumers, Meritage now has less cachet as the wine-drinking public has become more comfortable with wines labeled as blends. At Quintessa, founder Agustin Hunneuss planted a small amount of Carmenere, the flagship red grape of his native Chile, in addition to the common mix of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petite Verdot to accompany their many acres of Cabernet Sauvignon. While this is a symbolic example of blending, most winemakers in Napa blend for economic and stylistic reasons. Cabernet Sauvignon is low-yielding and expensive to grow. Merlot is more vigorous and there is less demand for the grape, making it an ideal component to stretch the quantity of Cabernet and bring a blend to market with a lower cost to the producer. The Federal Tax and Trade Bureau requires a varietally labeled wine to include as little as 75% of the stated grape, meaning that even many of the most expensive Cabernet Sauvignons from Napa include at least some percentage of other grapes. Merlot is good for the bottom line in addition to taming tannins. Cabernet Franc adds exotic spice and floral notes. Petite Verdot adds weight on the palate and deep purple color.
The white wine we released this month is not only a blend of four different grape varieties, but it is also a blend of grapes from five different unique regions. The Sauvignon Blanc is from Potter Valley in Mendocino County, the Chardonnay is from Alexander Valley and the Russian River Valley of Sonoma, the Viognier is from Suisun Valley, and the Chenin Blanc is from Clarksburg. Because the government requires 85% of grapes to come from a stated region, or 75% if that region is a county name, we must label the blend as being from California. Although wines from specific growing areas often command a premium in the marketplace, we are perfectly happy with characteristics added from grapes grown in five locations.
The red blend of Syrah and Barbera is a light, fragrant wine with racy acidity. Here, winemaker Chris Buchanon set out with the intent to create a wine akin to a light-bodied Pinot Noir. Syrah and Barbera are not typical blending partners, but by sourcing them from very-cool-climate sites, he was able to combine them in a way that achieved his goal. Since the grapes come from sites in Sonoma and Humboldt counties, this wine too carries the California appellation.
Although winemakers in the United States must adhere to labeling laws that apply to geographical boundaries, within that framework they enjoy the freedom to blend whatever they would like. Their European counterparts, on the other hand, are often told by their local authorities what can and can’t be combined. In California, there are new blends continuously coming into the marketplace. Many of these are approachably priced from lesser-known grape varieties. While some winemakers intended to make a specific blend, other blends result from necessity such as clearing space in barrels, filling up a tank completely, or using up a small amount of last year’s harvest to minimize waste. In my experience, blends at many price points offer great value, as their whole truly is greater than the sum of their parts.