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07.23.2008

Messages in a Bottle: Ode to the Blended Wine

Growing up in America cripples us wine lovers from the very start. Sure, we are born into the land of boundless opportunity, where the dreams and hard work of a vineyard worker can result in the ownership of a winery twenty years later. But unless our parents provide us with a very particular upbringing, we grow up thinking that wine isn't wine unless it has the name of the grape on the front of the label.

America and its wine lovers have a varietal bias.

There's nothing inherently wrong with an attraction to wines made from a single grape variety. Just ask any Burgundy, Brunello, or Barolo nut whether it's possible to make profound wine from just a single type of grape and you'll get yourself an earful (and if you're lucky, a glass-full). The only problem with a primary orientation to wines made from a single grape variety is that, well, they're boring.

Before you shoot me for mostly meaning what I just said, hear me out.

For every example of one of the world's top wines made from a single grape variety, I can find you examples of three or four others that are made from blends of different grapes. Get outside the world's finest, most expensive, wines and the numbers swing even more heavily towards wines made from three, four, or five, or fourteen different grape varieties.

Blended wines are simply the way that most winemaking was done for most of the modern history of our obsession with fermented grape juice.

Back in the day, most vineyards were planted with a mix of different kinds of grapes which were all harvested together, crushed together, and fermented together. Such practices are uncommon enough these days that we have a special name to describe such winemaking: a field blend. But if you were to jump back in time about 100 years and asked a winegrower (that happened to speak English) what he had planted in the vineyard, he'd likely tell you something like "mixed blacks" which meant a whole lot of different dark skinned grapes, many of which the gentleman farmer might not have been able to specifically identify.

Go back a few centuries farther in history and most winemaking converges towards this relatively simple formula -- grow some grapes, squash them, and ferment them. Selecting particular varieties for flavor was less important (and less common) than selecting grapes that would simply grow wherever it was that you wanted to set up your farm.

I mention this history simply to set some context, but my ode to blended wines has little to do with a yearning for historical winemaking practices. My proselytizing has much more to do with pleasure than precedent.

Setting aside for the moment that many of the best wines I've had in my life have been blends, let me evangelize based on my current experiences as a wine critic in today's market. Simply put, the majority of the most interesting wines I have been sent to taste in the last year or two have been multiple variety blends. Yet such wines make up only a small portion of the wine made in America, and an even smaller portion of the wines purchased by most American wine lovers.

Just to be clear, when I'm talking about a blended wine, I'm not talking about the relatively common practice of adding 4% Petite Verdot to your Cabernet Sauvignon to give it a little more depth. I'm talking about American wines that are made up of enough grape varieties that they can't legally be labeled with a single variety, and wines from around the world that have funny names that we Americans don't understand or can't pronounce.

I promise to go light on the clichéd metaphors here, but there's just something magical about a blended wine that most single varietal wines can't touch. Call it the harmonic effect. I like a fantastic Gregorian chant as much as the next guy, but I tell you what -- it almost never gives me the shivers like a boy's choir singing in six-part harmony.

The most amazing wine experiences in my life all have one thing in common: the incredible complexity of the wine -- a swirling myriad of primary and secondary flavors and aromas, with layers and dimensions that seem to defy the properties of a simple liquid put in the mouth. These layers and multiple notes are, of course, one of the chief reasons to age good wine, to let time transform the wine into something much more complex.

But well made blended wines come pre-layered with multiple flavors and complexity. They can achieve balance and harmony in ways that single varietal wines sometimes cannot, chained as they are to the flavors of a single grape.

And if you need just one more reason that you ought to be buying more blends, here's the final one: they're often cheaper than wines with big name grapes on the label, at least where American wines are concerned.

There are a few notable exceptions to this rule -- anything from Napa that is labeled "Proprietary Red" is bound to set you back several hundred bucks. But there are a lot of Rhone Blends, Bordeaux Blends, Red Table Wines, and wines with their own unique, characterful names that just won't set you back as much as a bottle of excellent Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir or a top Paso Robles Syrah.

And of course, there are the beautiful red wines from France's Languedoc and Southern Rhone Valley; the regional red and white blends of Italy; the gorgeous dry reds from Portugal; the stunning Bordeaux-style blends from Chile and Argentina; the fascinating reds and whites from Slovenia, Croatia, and Hungary; the list goes on and on, even without mentioning the most famous of wine regions.

Many of us American wine lovers have led sheltered lives, not unlike that kid I knew in elementary school who would only eat sandwiches on white bread with one ingredient in between the two slices. Now it's time to break out of the varietal rut we're in.

So next time you're going to buy a bottle, reach for something without the name of a grape on the label. And next time you're visiting a winery, ask them what they've got with a bunch of different kinds of grapes in it. And remember that you heard it here first: blended wines are the spice of life.


Thanks to reader Jim Kopp whose recent comment reminded me that I had been meaning to write something on this subject for a while. I think at one point sometime ago another reader also suggested this topic.

Comments (17)

Arthur wrote:
07.24.08 at 12:40 AM

Good piece, Alder.
I agree that a few varieties are capable of superb complexity whereas other wines need a broad cepage.
But for the American consumer to switch from varietal labeling (how many decades now), the would either have to go for “proprietary blends” or be open to regional labeling. But the latter would require some kind of quality/typicity benchmarks.

One point of correction though. Co-fermentation, though, is still practiced in CA but does not require a field blend - the fruit coming from the same site. Many Côte-Rôtie styled wines from CA are made by co-fermenting Syrah and Viognier - often from different vineyards (if not from separate blocks of the same vineyard). It is felt to give a synergy above that of blending of separately fermented varietal lots. With advances in ampelography, vineyard managers and winemakers know (most of the time) what they are growing and where. I have also heard “field blend” used to mean a cepage roughly representative of the proportions of the different varieties in the vineyard.

Tom Cross wrote:
07.24.08 at 12:48 AM

Is it any wonder that blended varieties are overlooked when wine merchants like only classify their wines by grape. I agree it is a great shame to overlook the wonderful blended wine available.

Arthur wrote:
07.24.08 at 12:57 AM

Tom,

I think the merchants are not to blame here. The varietal labeling system was adopted as the legal standard in the US after it received wide public acceptance.

But then the market decides what is best, doesn't it? Wisdom of the crowd and all...

Wink Lorch wrote:
07.24.08 at 2:15 AM

Very good piece, Alder and does not only apply to US consumers; more and more Britons buy by grape variety - and of course, Australians, South Africans etc etc.

But, one little point: when I was learning about wine (when the wine world was much, much smaller and mostly European), I remember learning that in a cool climate, complexity in a wine could be achieved using a single grape variety, whereas with a warmer climate (and shorter growing season, I guess) a blend of varieties was often needed to provide complexity in a wine. The simple and obvious comparison was usually made between red Burgundy (Pinot Noir) and Châteauneuf-du-Pape (up to 13 permitted varieties, though in practice rarely more than 3 or 4). Bearing in mind that virtually no growing areas of California, Washington DC or Australia (to name just 3) could be genuinely described as 'cool climate' (yes, cooler than average, but not really 'cool'), then you make extremely valid points.

07.24.08 at 6:38 AM

Yay Alder...great article..and my Arizona wines are Rhone blends. We can just usually...not always...make a better wine that way.

Arnaud H wrote:
07.24.08 at 8:32 AM

No to mention that a huge part of wines sold as single varietals in the US are actually technically blends taking advantage of the TTB regulation, and only contain 85% or more of the varietal mentioned on the label.

I drink Californian blends any chance I get. Sometimes I've made wonderful discoveries. More than Bordeaux-inspired or Supertuscan-style blends, I love tasting proprietary blends.

Rich wrote:
07.24.08 at 11:04 AM

Diversity, complexity and variety make the world a better place. I enjoy blends, but I don't find single grape wines made by traditional methods to be boring. But then, I've been married to the same wonderful woman for over 24 years. Of course, it doesn't hurt to "look" at blends on occasion. I am wondering, do blends have more fun?

caitlin wrote:
07.24.08 at 12:41 PM

This article makes me think of what Robert Mondavi did for California Sauvignon Blanc when he first began blending it with Semillon and labeling it Fumé Blanc like a French white Bordeaux. Sauvignon Blanc on its own can be overly aromatic, really stinky actually. Adding Semillon tames unpleasant odors, rounds out the wine, gives it enough structure to withstand oak treatment, and can even give a really great vintage aging potential.

Morton Leslie wrote:
07.24.08 at 1:38 PM

I like field blends. It's the devil-may-care winemaking of picking several varieties together knowing none are probably at optimum individual maturity. Then mixing them in the fermenter, and letting them ferment someway; different, certainly, than how you would have fermented them if they were separate. With a field blend you get what you get.

I prefer that to the way most proprietal blends are made. Where each variety is harvested and fermented at the winemaker's optimum. Then, for example, blended using Cabernet as the backbone, a little Petit Verdot for color and filling a hole in the tannin profile, Merlot to soften and stretch, and Cabernet Franc for its aroma. Booooriiiiing!

In the first instance you taste chance and Nature. In the second, you taste technical winemaking with Nature blended away. Of course, sometimes Nature raises an ugly hand, but since it is someone else's problem, I can buy something else.

Colman Stephenson wrote:
07.25.08 at 10:39 AM

This is a great post, but the title is misleading.

I was hoping for something in Iambic Pentameter...

Alder wrote:
07.25.08 at 11:11 AM

:-) I'm afraid I'm not much of a poet. You wouldn't want to read my rhyming couplets.

Hank wrote:
07.29.08 at 9:22 AM

Bravo! My three favorite reds are chateauneuf du pape (all of them.), Rioja Reservas (usually 3 kinds of grapes) and a Rhone blend from El Dorado County winery Holly's Hill called the Patriarche. I know, they are very similar, but both go perfectly with all the wild game I bring home...

07.29.08 at 2:06 PM

Alder,

I just want everything to be clear. You are advocating blending and labeling the wine as something other than a varietal wine, is this correct?
I have a problem with blending when it takes advantage of 'lax' labeling laws and is used to turn something poor, such as central valley pinot noir that has been over cropped, into something passable and drinkable ( such as with the addition of Syrah ). My problem is not with the blending or the resulting wine but with how the wine may be labeled.
I agree, blending is a great way to make a more intersting wine. I just don't want it to be pretending that it is something else.

Alder wrote:
07.29.08 at 7:51 PM

Jerry,

Thanks for the clarification. If I had my way, wine labels would always disclose the exact percentages of the varieties used, their vintages and sources (if outside the appellation). I am NOT advocating that wineries add a dash of this and a dollop of that just to make a "Syrah" more interesting without really being clear that you're making a blend.

Darlene wrote:
02.11.10 at 8:22 AM

One of my favourite whites is Conundrum! I believe it is a blend of 5? or 6? different grapes. Whatever it is..works for me!

Wine Lover wrote:
03.21.11 at 3:01 AM

Thats a good point no wine ever states really what is inside of it, for all you know they could have used grass as ingredients as well as other things

If wines actually stated what exact grapes are used then it would make wine conversations all that much fun

07.15.14 at 11:10 AM

It's really a nice and useful piece of information. I am happy that you shared this helpful info with us.

Please stay us informed like this. Thanks for sharing.

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