As I was preparing to write this post I spent a lot of time on the internet and digging through a lot of technical stuff that might have made sense in the 1600s or 1700s but sure did not make sense to me today. While dredging through all this stuff I came across an article from Wine Enthusiast (Author unknown) that really made me laugh He or she used ice cream as a metaphor for wine (I know this is a stretch). quoting with attribution to Wine Enthusiast ” Vanilla Ice Cream is all right on its own but it definitely benefits from a dollop of chocolate syrup” I want you to remember this quote as I’ll come back several time to it later in the blog. It is really true and aptly applies to wines as well . A classic California Cabernet Sauvignon may be great, but add a dollop of Merlot and it is even better. This is really what wine is all about today, differentiation and making the vanilla ice cream better with a dollop of chocolate, strawberry, huckleberry or caramel. So how extensive is blending, how did it start, how can I tell and what does it all mean to me.
For starters the bottle of wine you buy may not always be what you think and that isn’t such a bad thing, blending has been going on for years. The law in the United states (federal Labeling regulations) require that in order to put a varietal name on a wine label it must be at least be 75% that grape and the other varieties need not be disclosed on the label. Think about that, the expensive Cabernet Sauvignon you just bought might be watered down by other grape varieties. Is this a bad thing? Maybe, Maybe not, it all depends on the winemaker’s motivation. If they dump in lesser grapes from poor quality stock to get the price down it could be a downer to it’s loyal customers. On the other hand to reference the ice cream, a dollop of quality Merlot has mellowed many a Cabernet Sauvignon and made it a much better wine. This is especially true with wines we see in the markets today. A young Cabernet Sauvignon (100%), good grapes and vinting technique not withstanding, will likely be very tannic until it has age under its belt. If I am grabbing a bottle to take to a friend’s home for dinner that I know we will drink tonight I want something good (at least okay). Do I grab a bottle off the top shelf, with its top shelf price, because it’s a good older vintage, or do I hit the middle shelf and get one that I know is a good early drinking blend. Minto is a Scots name so you figure it out. Blending gives us a lot more flexibility in what we can drink and when.
Blending has been going on in Europe for centuries and many of the classic big wines: Bordeaux, Chianti, Cote du Rhone, to name a few, are almost all blended. In fact, many of the older wine houses have proprietary recipes that have been handed down for generations. By law in order to call a wine a Bordeaux it can only contain one or more of the following wines: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Petite Verdot, Carmenere and Cabernet Franc all of which must be grown in the Bordeaux Appellation. So what is a Bordeaux? With no limitations as to amounts, no required ingredients I now understand why the same vintage of different Chateaus can be so different. In Rhone regions of France winemakers mix up a variety of 15 different grapes to concoct Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Cote du Rhone and Cote Rotie. Granted they generally don’t use all fifteen at once, but the latitude is great and the styles have gained a great deal of consistency over the centuries.
In Italy for years Chianti has been a blend of principally Sangiovese (major ingredient) with Canaiolo, Malvasia Blanca or Trebbiano. Only recently have the Italian wine authority ( Denominazione Origine Controlla e Garanta — DOCG) allowed the production of 100% Sangiovese wines under the Chianti name. Notice the inclusion of the Malvasia Blanca (white wine) in the list. It has been a leading minor ingredient for many Chianti producers to provide a little mellowing to the Sangiovese to allow it the appeal to a broader palate and allow it to be consumed younger. Even in Italy wine drinkers have become more impatient. On a side note, you may have seen “Super Tuscan” blends in the markets. These wine actually violates the DOCG rules and until recently were required to be labeled as “table wines” a much lower class of wine than the major denominations considered to be much superior. Time fixes every thing (maybe) and recently the DOCG gave them their own denomination — Indicazione Geografica Titia or IGT for short. It’s still not a superior denomination, but its better than “Table Wine” In fact, referencing the previous ice cream metaphor, if one variety of ice cream is a cone, these super wines might just be considered the ultimate ice cream sundae.
Moving to our side of the pond I’ll wax nostalgic and give the younger generation a picture of life in the olden times (before 1970) when American winemakers produced principally two wines “Burgundy” (Pinot Noir grapes — primarily) and Chablis (Chardonnay grapes-primarily). I am intentionally leaving out the lesser stuff which all the children of the “60s” want to forget like Boones Farm and MD20/20. Trust me it was another time and place which is best left in its cloudy reverie We consumed a lot of marginal wine back in the day and much of it came in gallon jugs and factually was pretty watery stuff. Then came the 1970’s when the winemakers looked east across the pond and realized that they too could produce really good wines and the era of single varietal wines came into being and the industry blossomed to what we have today. The various states drafted up their own purity laws like most of Europe and quality control became the order of the day. Oregon has by far the strictest such provisions requiring Varietal Wines to contain 90% varietal grapes to be permitted to use the wine’s varietal name on the label. Most of the rest of the wine growing world (USA world that is) adheres to the federal labeling standard of 75%.
One of the more interesting developments in this process came with the question; what happens if we replicate a classic Bordeaux blend in the United States, can we call it a Bordeaux. The answer is clearly no, so “Meritage” was born and with its birth came its own strict (mostly) set of standards of purity. Of course along with that came a regulator, the “Meritage Association” which must approve this uniquely American “Bordeaux style” wine before it can use the “Meritage “brand on its label. These “Meritage wines are some of the best in the world and rival a classic Bordeaux both in quality and price.
Okay what happens if we use less that 75% of one varietal in a wine, what do we call it in America? Answer — Anything you want as long as it doesn’t use a varietal name on the label. If you go to the supermarket and look on the middle shelves you will see some really strange labels and names and mostly they will change from year to year. That’s the beauty of wine making today, you can still produce a blend that carries a $20.00 price tag and not worry about branding, vintages or varietals. Mix up whatever grapes are handy and presto you have instant success or failure. If it succeeds you try to remember what you put in it and it becomes a brand (e.g. Three Legged Dog — one of my favorites, or Two Buck Chuck — one of my least favorites). if it was a failure you design a new label and try again next year. I actually like this free form part of the industry. On the other end of the wine spectrum we find the elite proprietary brands, Insignia, Opus, Dominus, Isosceles, Ovid and Rubicon to name a few which meticulously craft blended wines that trade for in excess of $200 a bottle. I confess that they are not abundant in my cellar as they hit the upper extreme of my budget about $125 ago.
Fast forward to today and blending is no longer just the province of the winemaker. Wine Bars all over let patrons blend their own wines with some degree of chemical precision. Even NakeWines.com tasting rooms have this on the menu. It’s actually neat to be able to sit down in a quiet (or not) environment with a bunch of bottles in front of you, a measuring beaker and a wine glass and precisely blend up you own super wine by adding different ingredients and seeing what you like and don’t, what works for you and what doesn’t without buying the entire bottle and finding out you hate it. I suspect we will see more of this cropping up as it’s a fun way to while away an evening. By the way I don’t recommend trying this at home as you are likely to start with wines that have already been blended to a degree and the results will never match up to those where you begin with pure varietals.
Well this has been fun, but I hit my own self imposed limit of 1500 words a while back. I want to captivate my readers, not put them to sleep so I’ll close this blog out with the promise to dig deeper into blending and perhaps bring back some country specific blending blogs later on.