Wine Consumer

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Be a Mensch, Buy a Blend

WineConsumer, Harry Stoll
09/19/2013

Near the end of the most recent century The Men's Guide to Ironing (ironically, about much more pressing problems) had a chapter titled, "Be a Man, Buy a Blend." The idea was that we should forget 100% cotton and 100% wool and buy blends because they required little or no ironing. An equally important point was that good blends often looked and felt better.

Blended wines, unlike blended fabrics, have been around a long time. While a few wines brag about being 100% of one variety of grape, almost all include other varieties.

The well-known wines of France and Italy that carry those hard to pronounce yet intriguing place names such as Chateauneuf du Pape, Chianti, Montepulciano de Abbruzzi, et al, must be made from grapes grown in the area. Further, only certain varieties in certain proportions may be used. Thus, they are blends.

By the way it doesn't matter, for example, if Cabernet Sauvignon can be grown in the Chianti region, if you put any in the wine you may no longer label it Chianti. (Sangiovese is the main grape in Chianti.)

Type, Not Place

When California wineries began to get uppity and had the cheek to compete with the Old World they decided to emphasize the variety of grape not the area in which the grapes were grown. One explanation of this is that independent Americans didn't want anybody telling them what grapes they could make the wine from and call it Napa or Delano. Hmm, maybe.

Whatever the reason, California producers decided to emphasize the variety of grape. In common with many industries, vintners had a hand in writing the government regulations that were to control them. The result was that a wine must be from at least 75% of one grape to be labeled with that variety. These wines are called varietal. The 'al' ending meaning "of the." Thus variety refers to the grape, varietal to the wine.

This varietal labeling meant that Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir and, later, Syrah and Zinfandel, had wide recognition. Cabernet Sauvignon often has Cabernet Franc or Merlot added to smooth the edges of the tough tannins. That would seem to make it a blend.

It's the Marketing, Stupid

This emphasis on variety sent the market going a certain way and blended wines have had a difficult time getting our attention. The Meritage (Rhymes with heritage) Association rents it name out to wineries making Bordaux blends. But getting a marketing handle on names for blends has been difficult. But that's the marketers problem. Our problem is to get over looking for those signs on the aisles--you know the ones, Cabernet to Zinfandel--and look for blended wines.

So is blended wine any good? Yes. No. Blended wines have the same range of plonk to premium that varietals have. You have to trust the vintner, the reviews, the salesman, the marketing and most of all yourself. You can't blend in bad grapes and make good wine.

The tried and true dictum of the industry that it doesn't matter how good the wine is you still have to sell it is especially true when it comes to blends. If a wine has less than 75% of one variety, federal labeling regulations allow the wine type to be identified only as "red wine" or "white wine" or "red table wine" or "white table wine." It's true that in smaller type, the amounts of each variety can be shown but the big letters can only list it as "Wine" or "Table Wine." This isn't very sexy so many wineries market their red or white with a proprietary name. Sometimes the wineries pick a self-deprecating name that says, "We're calling this 'Cheap Red Wine' but it's surprisingly good." El Dorado County's Oakstone Winery calls their red blend Slug Gulch Red after the road the winery is on. Bonny Doon Winery, a very savvy marketer, calls their red blend Big House Red because the grapes are grown near Soledad prison. And there's Dad's Daily Red, Red Wagon Red and Rough and Ready Red. I'm surprised there's no "Red Table" wine with a graphic of a red table. And there is no Whorehouse Red. The label regulators probably wouldn't allow it.

Other wineries go the other direction and use French or Italian names. Apparently we're still impressed with the Old World despite our attempts to get over it.

Bordeaux Blends

While Cabernet Sauvignon remains the bully boy of Bordeaux, wineries are blending in plenty of other varieties to make some stunning wines, that, for my taste, are often more interesting than the pure Cabernet Sauvignons.

Some wineries forgo Cabernet Sauvignon altogether. Ballentine Vineyards produces a blend they call Integrity and it has that. It's a blend of Cabernet Franc and Merlot and is uncommonly smooth, tasty and complex.

Bernardus Winery in Carmel Valley produces an estate blend they call Marinus (also the name of their primo vineyard restaurant). It's mostly Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petite Verdot. They said their aim was not to produce a wine that reflected the varietal but one that was complex and rich. This beauty will send you on an adjective hunt.

Anderson's Conn Valley Vineyards makes the praiseworthy Eloge that is not a fruit bomb but nicely balanced. It is 65% Cabernet Sauvignon with descending amounts of Cabernet Franc and Merlot to trip nicely on your palate.

Claret

At one time a lot of wine was sold as "Claret." Looks French doesn't it? Originally it was but it's the English word for a blend of Bordeaux. It's a term that should make a comeback. Some Clarets of note are Elliston Vineyard of Livermore Valley and Domaine Becquet in Calaveras County.

There is no legal definition of Claret and often it simply means red wine. Roudon-Smith in the Santa Cruz Mountains produces a tasty Claret; its two main varieties are Syrah and Zinfandel. They add some Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache and Carignane.

Chateauneuf and Down Under

The Rhone Rangers is an association dedicated to pushing Rhone wines. (The practice is to call these "Rhone style" wines to avoid accusations of faking a French appellation.) The Rangers state that, for Rhone reds, there are often two blends. The Chateauneuf model follows the French tradition of including Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and maybe more. Zaca Mesa Winery in Foxen Canyon, Santa Barbara County, produces an excellent example of this one with its Z Cuvee as does Robert Hall Winery with its Rhone de Robles. River Run Vintners in Santa Cruz County produces its rich Cote d'Aromas. My, we love those French connections. In Livermore Valley, two wineries across the road from one another, produce two in the 'neuf style. Fenestra produces True Red (named for Robert True) and Thomas Coyne Winery produces Quest.

Australian wineries are known for blending Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, thus the Down Under model. Swanson Vineyards in Oakville blended Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, named it Alexis after their daughter and they are rightly proud of this words fail wine. It aint cheap but it aint cheap.

Other Rhone-Bordeaux blends are on the shelves. Steven Kent Winery in Livermore Valley produces Icarus--a mythic wine that soars exactly the right distance from the sun. It's a blend of 78% Mendocino Syrah and 22% Livermore Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. It's unfined, unfiltered and a pure joining of sensuality and strength.

Super Tuscans

Super Tuscan is an unfortunate marketing term but the results aren't. The mild-mannered Sangiovese goes into a phone booth, takes at least its glasses off, meets Cabernet Sauvignon or some other muscle wine and emerges heartier and more complex singing "O sweet mystery of life at last I've found you." Gargiulo Vineyards on Oakville Crossroads blended 5% Cabernet Sauvignon with their Sangiovese and named it Aprile, after their daughter April, who is their wine flogger. She has a Lorenesque mouth and is smart and interesting. Same for the wine.

You've probably noticed that Alexis is from the same area. Up in Oakville, they like to name wine after their daughters.

Finally, here's a guy wine: Paso Robles Fratelli Perata produces Bambino Grande, named after Bambino Diorio, maternal grandfather of the brothers (Fratelli) Gino and Joe Perata. This Super Tuscan is Sangiovese blended with three other wines that Carol Perata (Gino's wife) refuses to identify. "Drink the wine," she says, and that's my advice. (But note that they do grow Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Syrah.) Buy it--you'll not only enjoy the wine but will enjoy identifying the blend.

Vinho Tinto

The name Vinho Tinto has a better marketing appeal than the name red wine, which it is. It's a blend of Portugese varieties. These wines havn't made it to celebrity status here, but they're on the way. Vinho Tinto is a ready-made marketing term. (Makes you feel all internacional to say it.) Sonora Port & Wine Works produced a Sierra Foothills Quinta da Sonora, a dry red table wine composed of Touriga Nacional and Tinto Cao with smaller amounts of Alvarelhao and Tinta Roriz. They no longer make it, so if you find any, buy it. But many other wineries produce Vinho Tinto.

Field Blends and Table Blends

Field blends are Mother Nature as the blender with the different varieties growing in the same vineyard on the same blocks on the same cordons, etc. The grapes are harvested, crushed and fermented together. Westbrook Farms in Madera produces Fait Accompli, which I guess means since the varieties are pre-blended it's a done deal. Field blends are old hat in many old California vineyards.

I'm indebted to wine writer Anna Nicholas for the idea of table blends. Add your own Cab Sauv to that easy going Sangiovese. Or whatever. Of course there is one principle to follow, which is as solid as Green Family Winery Syrah with Mountain Mike pepperoni pizza, and that is the varietals should complement one another. What that means of course, is any wine blenders idea. I intend to open a bottle of princely Pinot Noir and introduce it to a roughneck Zinfandel. If it works I'll patent it and name it Forbidden.

I have confidence that the winemakers will continue to make heavenly blends. The marketers--I'm not so sure, they have the tougher job. The wine taster, you, should open the mind and mouth.