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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.

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