Due Regazze Vineyards (JPB's Vines in Cameron Park, CA)

Friday, April 1, 2011

Blending the Rules

One of the biggest misconceptions I had about wine as a young oenophile was over the concept of blending different grape varietals. My simple thought process was this: a winemaker only blended wines because he ran out of the good stuff. Fifteen years and several cases later, I have realized the error of my ways. It appears that blending different varietals can actually make a bottle of wine taste better! I’ve learned that Chianti and Bordeaux wines are not grape varietals but are in fact blends. Turns out wine makers from Italy and France have been blending wine for centuries and they are pretty good at it.

However, these old world vintners can’t just blend anything they want. There are rules that must be followed. I could go on a 50 page rant on the topic but I’ll just share the most important of these rules. The respective governments of these countries will only allow a commercial winery to blend grapes grown in a particular region. For example; a winemaker in the Bordeaux region can only blend Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cab Franc, Petite Verdot and Mablec grape varietals into their wines. If he or she thought a Syrah from the Rhone region would make their wine taste better, they could not add it and still call it a wine from Bordeaux. I know it sounds absurd, but I guess if you have been practicing a trade for centuries, change is hard. While we American winemakers haven’t had the experience of our European counterparts, we also haven’t had much time to establish rules that could inhibit blending creativity. We will try about anything to make a wine taste good.

If you think rules can’t influence innovation, Frenchman and winemaker Stephan Asseo would tell you otherwise. Despite being an established and accomplished winemaker in France, Asseo felt he had not truly reached the apex of his wine making. After a visit to Paso Robles California in the early 90’s he discovered what he was looking for; an enormous wine appellation with several microclimates that would grow several different varietals. Furthermore, he could blend them however he wanted. Today, his L’Aventure Estate wines are considered the flagship blend in the region and command a price of $85.00 a bottle. The Winologist was fortunate enough to sample this wine and it is fabulous.

However, we are not rule free either. These standards were put in place by our Government so the consumer can glean as much information about the product as possible from the label. Things like: what type of grapes, how much alcohol, where it is from and what year is the vintage. Another rule is a wine must have at least 75% of one varietal to market the wine as said varietal. For instance, I can say my wine is a Cabernet as long as 75% of the grapes are Cabernet. Should you really care, if a wine isn’t a pure varietal? Absolutely not but remember, there are several wine drinkers who think like I did 15 years ago.

Commercial California winemakers recognized this dilemma but instead of trying to go out and educate the public on the benefits of blending wine, they came up with a cheaper more creative solution. They gave these high end blends their own proprietary name! No snobby,aristocratic wine consumer would purchase something that says red wine on the label. They need something that sounds unique and special. From this mind set, we are blessed with wines named Insignia, Dominus, Opus One, and Rubicon. All of these wines have won accolades and have been given high wine scores. They even sound expensive and every one of them is a blend. Below are some notes on some of my favorite blends. I’ve stuck to North American wines because that is what I have tasted over the past month. The Australians, Chileans and Argentineans are producing some phenomenal blends as well and in my opinion they are more than reasonable. As requested by my readers, I’ve picked different price points and I hope you find the time to try them.

Dillian 2008 Vino Nostro- This wine is just wonderful and comes in at a great price point(~ 20 dollars). This is a classic example of blending grapes from multiple regions. Sixty percent of the fruit is Zinfandel which comes from America, twenty percent is Syrah which is a Rhone Style grape and 20% is Barbera which is an Italian varietal. Wine maker Tom Dillian is a fourth generation famer in Amador County and has developed into a first class vintner as well. You can buy at the winery or call Raj at Lake Forest wines and he will take care of you.

Clayhouse 2008 Adobe Red- The bulk of this Paso Robles wine is comprised from Zin and Syrah but there are an additional six varietals also in the blend! At 15 dollars, it is a bargain. Alcohol content is just under 14% and the wine offers a well balanced finish. Over 25,000 cases were produced so it should be easy to find. I know some of you frown upon wines without corks so full disclosure; this has a screw cap.

Ramey 2007 Napa Valley Claret- Lets first deal with the word Claret; it is just another fancy French way of saying blend. It is NOT a grape varietal. I really enjoyed this wine and if you appreciate good Cabernet, then you will want to pick some of this up. While the vast majority of the wine is Cab, there is also Syrah, Malbec, Merlot, Cab Franc and Petit Verdot blended as well. I see it has scores in the low 90s from various wine magazines but at $36 dollars a bottle it borders on being a wine for a special occasion in this day and age.

Mark Ryan 2007 Dead Horse Ciel Du Cheval Vineyard- This was one of my more pleasant finds in my cellar this month. I had bought it awhile ago and somehow it got behind a champagne bottle. Mark Ryan is one of my favorite wine makers period. He always brings out quality wines and this Washington blend is no exception. The only problem is he does very limited quantities so you are best to get on a mailing list if you really enjoy his wine. Also seems his prices have moved from the low $40s to the high $40s. That said, the quality of his wines is comparable to any high end, high priced Napa product.

Orin Swift 2009 Abstract Red Wine- A few years ago, Orin Swift owner David Phinney came out with an eclectic Zin based blend called The Prisoner. It was at a reasonable price point in the mid 20’s and it was a huge success. A friend of mine said he recently saw it listed in a Chicago restaurant for $90 bucks! The Abstract is a follow up and it is newly released. Abstract is a blend of Grenache, Petite Sirah, and Syrah and priced in the mid- 20’s (just like the Prisoner when it was newly released) it is a great value. I believe it is sold out at the winery but you should be able to find it on-line or at a local wine merchant.

1 comment:

  1. Ah.....blending. One of the single most misunderstood topics in all winedom. Nice tackle of blending 101.