Wednesday, February 27, 2008

To Blend, Or Not To Blend; That Is the Question

Shakespeare aside, a very real question for the wine maker is whether ‘tis nobler in mind to persevere against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take grapes from a single vineyard against a sea of troubles to make a perfect wine. But if that isn’t a consummation devoutly to be wished then they must select from different vineyards the right qualities of the grapes to make the perfect wine. I just hope the bard isn’t rolling over in his grave for the grievous liberties I’ve taken.

Generally, a wine created from a single vineyard is owned by the winery, and can be used to make a wine if it has all the qualities they are seeking. Alternately, that vineyard can be the basis of a blend by selecting grapes from other vineyards the winery owns, or out-sourcing for the qualities that are lacking in their own grapes.

If the vineyard is truly unique, the wine maker can use it for a single vineyard wine alone, or as part of a blend, with the balance used for a limited production or reserve selection. In that way they can offer a more expensive version to please the connoisseur and extend its availability in a blend that preserves its best qualities. More bang for the buck to unearth a vulgar phrase.

Even after that decision is made the alchemical talents of the wine maker are truly tested to select and blend the right crops of grapes in the correct ratios to produce a unique blend. Done right, the blend can be more expensive than a single vineyard wine, and it may be the standard the winery chooses year after year. This, of course, is the route taken by many French wine makers, who very seldom rely on one grape to represent their signature wines.

The classic example of a domestic blend is a Meritage wine. These blends will typically include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot, but may also include Petite Verdot and Malbec, two grapes now experiencing popularity through their separate bottling. Of course Argentina’s Malbecs have been popular for some time.

The other form of blending uses the same grape, such as a Zinfandel, but sources them from different lots, or different vineyards. Typically these are all within a particular viticultural region, but not always. However, in most European countries, the regulatory bodies require the grapes to come from a particular area. Even blends there often have to follow general guidelines before they can put their name on the wine. In the U.S., there are less restrictions and experimentation much more widespread.

One exception is that to qualify a wine as Zinfandel, for example, a certain minimum of that grape must be present. Otherwise it must be identified as a blend, and the name accepted by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). Considering some of the names I’ve seen used, the group must be pretty liberal.

Large production wine producers often blend each year to produce a wine with their own “signature taste”. For example Kendal-Jackson has produced their Chardonnays with similar oak contact and maloactic fermentation to produce their signature oaky, buttery Chardonnays. Since many consumers look for K-J wines for that reason they can sell a lot of wine. An economic as well as ascetic choice.

In California, the Merlot grape for many years was grown only to blend it with Cabernet Sauvignon to soften the sometimes harsh tannins of a 100% Cabernet. Clos du Bois decided to give their Merlot grape its own bottling many years ago, and sold out each year. Other wineries took note and now Merlot is a standard offering of most red wine producers. Ironically, some Cabernet Sauvignon is often added to give the Merlot more structure. This, of course, came as no surprise to Bordeaux wine makers who have produced great wines from the Merlot grape for centuries, Sideways not withstanding.

The Semillon grape is another example of a blended grape, often added to Sauvignon Blanc to produce a fuller, richer wine. On its own, this grape is the basis for the great Sauternes of France, but it does not often possess all those qualities in domestic wines unless they are crafted as late harvest. There are exceptions to this; the Alhgren 2004 100% Semillon is a very versatile food wine. It paired perfectly with Thanksgiving turkey, and I’ve found few whites that matched so well.

So to blend is the choice of most wine makers, either with the same grapes at different locations, or with the addition of different grapes to improve and add complexity to the principle grape, and there are some classical blends, such as in Bordeaux, that many wine makers produce. And with any luck you won’t have to endure any more of my Shakespearean analogies. Salut!

1 comment:

Rich said...

"Are you chewing gum?"