The prevailing wisdom is that wine is made in the vineyard, and that the winemaker’s job is to interfere as little as possible, allowing the vineyard or grape variety to “express itself”. It is trendy to talk about “non-interventionist” winemaking, letting the wine make itself with as little human manipulation as possible, using native yeasts etc. etc. All of this is great, and a worthy philosophical view towards making wine as naturally as possible.
As much as we all want to believe that wine simply makes itself, the reality is that winemakers are responsible for the whole wine production process, from the growing of the grapes to the bottling, making sure that nothing goes wrong. Therefore, the finished product evokes not only a sense of place but also the style which the winemaker is aiming to achieve. Part of this process is blending.
What is wine blending? By definition, blending wine simply means combining two or more wines to create a new one. As we all know, wine is made from grapes, and only grapes. However, there are hundreds of types of grape that vary quite dramatically. Grape varietals are different breeds of grapes, some of which are ancient and others which are newer hybrids of other varietals. These different wine grapes have diverse characteristics and personalities that they instil in the wines that are made from them.
There are several reasons why a winemaker might want to blend wines, including but not limited to enhancing aroma, improving the colour, adding or minimizing flavours and tastes, adjusting the pH of a wine, lowering or raising acidity, raising or lowering alcohol levels, adjusting the sweetness of a wine, correcting a wine with too much oak flavour and raising or lowering levels of tannin.
Wines that are blended can originate from different grape varieties, from the same variety but different locations, from different vintages or from separate lots of a particular batch of wine fermented in stainless steel tanks or oak barrels. Furthermore, blending can take place at several stages in winemaking, starting in the vineyard where several grape varieties can be inter-planted, harvested, and crushed together. Alternatively, following a separate crushing and pressing, different musts can be blended and fermented together; or after clarification, stabilization and ageing, nearly finished wines can be combined prior to bottling.
At its most basic form, winemakers blend from different grape varieties in order to add more complexity to the flavour and texture of a wine. Different vintages are blended together to balance out annual variations in flavour. Both reds and whites can be made from blends of varietals. In some cases, they may even blend whites and reds together in order to create the best possible combination of aromas and flavours. Every wine involves some degree of blending: whether it’s a mixture of grape varieties, vineyards, regions, vintages or production processes, ageing and type of tank storage.
In the last few decades, some circles have assigned a negative connotation to the word “blend”. People often are led to believe that a blended wine is not as good as a varietal. The question raised is whether this means a single variety wine is of better quality than a blended wine?
Though the discussion surrounding varietals versus blends is often heated and passionate, the answers are usually blurred. The reality is that every wine must stand on its own merits. Being a true single varietal wine does not mean it is better than a blend or any other varietal wine. In fact blends, are some of the most complex and interesting types of wine in the market.
We’re so quick to make things black or white, but the truth is that everything in this world is a blend of different things. Even if a wine is 100 percent of a single varietal, it remains up to the winemaker to decide how to blend different consignments of the same variety from a single vineyard or create a blend from multiple vineyards. The final wine blend from a single grape could likely be significantly different, depending on the various “lots” and proportions that that a winemaker has to use for its production.
From a commercial standpoint, an important function of blending is to help the winery to produce a consistent product from bottle to bottle. The most common reason big wineries blend is to keep their non-varietals consistent from one year to the next. Keeping non-varietals consistent from year to year requires an ability to taste and blend in an attempt to recreate what was made the year before. Blending among the various storage vessels of a particular vintage cancels out any variation that is created due to the vintage year from a number of factors, such as differences in vineyard locations and yield, harvesting date, fermentation procedures and tannin levels in barrels.
On the whole, blending to improve wines is more like an art than a science. Like any art, there are some basic rules that are allowed to be broken. Creating a blend might just be the most creative part of being a winemaker. Wine blends offer more complexity than single varietal wines. In fact, some of the world’s greatest wines are made from a blend of grapes rather than a single varietal. By blending varietals, winemakers can change the wine’s qualities. On the other hand, blends are not necessarily better than single varietal wines. Otherwise, all wines would be blends. Many of the world’s most celebrated wines are a blend of two, three or more grape varieties. The percentages of each variety are dependent on the winemakers taste, on the winery’s regional style or on the quality of the grapes.
Most wines from the “Old World” (as Europe is known when it comes to wine) are blends. Traditionally, the general practice in the “old world” was to name the wine by region or producer. These wines evoke a sense of place, based on the geographical sites that provide certain characteristics due to microclimate and soil type. Some wine blends are made from classic recipes handed down from generation to generation. Other vintners create brand new blends in an attempt to produce an innovative and exciting wine that has flavour characteristics like nothing else on the market.
Winemakers around the world are becoming extremely inventive in their wine blending techniques. “New World” winemakers often create daring blends from grapes not traditionally combined, creating new and exciting flavour and aroma profiles. Blending involves a lot of tasting and an intimate knowledge of the vineyard sites on which the fruit is grown. It’s a skill, an art, a craft and one of the most crucial tasks in the winery. Behind the curtain of “non-intervention” lies a hardworking winemaker who tastes, blends, and tastes again, all in an effort to produce a great bottle of wine.
Winemakers are free to use just about any grapes they want in their wines. They will frequently separate different vineyards, or areas of a vineyard, when they ferment. If the wine is to be aged in wood, more decisions need to be made on the type of wood (French Oak, American Oak, etc.) and how much time the wine stays in the barrel. After the wine is made and aged, the winemaker will determine which process each wine will be part of. Different batches will complement each other and be blended into a wine that will create something that is better than its individual parts.
The only rule to be followed is: A wine cannot be labelled as a varietal grape name such as “Cabernet Sauvignon” unless it has at least a specified percentage of that variety in its blend. Within the European Union, a wine using a varietal label must contain at least 85% of that variety. However, national regulations may set the limit higher in certain cases, but not lower. In the USA, the specified percentage is 75%. Other countries and appellations within countries apply different regulations concerning the amount of a varietal in order for it to appear on the label.
In the final analysis, if you find a wine that you enjoy and it is a blend, then you should continue to drink it. Blended wines are not “second class” citizens. After all, the ultimate duty of a wine is to provide pleasure, not to adhere to some government rule. Wines blended from several different varietals are the norm in Europe. There is a subtle, mysterious quality about blends. They tend to be much more complex and interesting when assembled p
roperly and they could provide the most complete wine experience, whether enjoyed on their own or with food.
If you wish to extend your wine knowledge and thus enhance your wine experience, you should try varietal wines whenever possible. There are hundreds of varietals available, each with a special subtle difference waiting for you to discover. It’s hard to appreciate the characteristics of Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, when you drink only Cab/Shiraz blends. You never know if what you are tasting is coming from the Cabernet or the Shiraz.
It is up to you as a wine taster to decide which wine you prefer, whether it is a blend of grapes or 100% varietal. The ultimate goal, of course, is your enjoyment! Always remember “Grapes are the most noble and challenging of fruits”.