FIELD NOTES - Vol. 6. - The Beauty of the Blend
Have you ever been the person selecting the wine at a restaurant and feeling the pressure of what to order to complement multiple meals at the table? Have you struggled at your favorite wine store, staring at endless bottles on the shelf, not knowing what will appeal to everyone at a party? Have you ever been a sales rep who has sold wine based on varietal, but shied away from a blend because you were unsure of what it was? You’re not alone. Blended wines can seem daunting, but once understood, can be the answer to a lot of wine woes.
So to begin, we must first ask the question: why blend? In short, winemakers often blend grapes to create a wine by design; a wine of intent. Winemakers work their magic to change the style of a single-varietal expression by adding other grape varieties to the equation. Syrah, for example, is blended into Pinot Noir for added power and muscle. Malbec is often added to Cabernet Sauvignon to soften tannins and add a bit of spice. Both Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc are added to Zinfandel to dial back the jammy fruit while adding structure. Merlot is often blended to Cabernet Sauvignon in order to soften the wine and make it more accessible. There are endless possibilities and permutations, though we have barely begun to scratch the surface.
But how do we even know when it’s a blend? American wines are often self-explanatory in that producers list the grape on the front label when it’s a single varietal wine, though with a blend, you may need to turn to the back label or even a website to find the magic formula. Meanwhile, across the pond, most wine bottles don’t even list a variety, but only the region. Think about a pleasing bottle of Cotes du Rhone, a sultry wine from Bordeaux or a super food friendly Super Tuscan. Those are all good examples of classic European red blends.
So then, how do we tell the tale of the red blend? First, do your research. In this day and age, there are plenty of sales assets at your disposal. Second, select your favorite producers. Chances are, a red blend lives within their realm. If the producer is a Cabernet-focused producer, it’s likely their red blend will be Cabernet-dominant. If that producer is known for Merlot, chances are there may be Merlot in the blend. These are all jumping off points for expanding your horizons. Why? Because the other blending grapes help round-out the wines in ways that having one varietal cannot.
You’re likely familiar with more red blends than you know. Take Joseph Phelps Insignia, which just happened to be Napa’s first proprietary red Bordeaux-styled blend. Let your mind stretch to the worlds of Sassicaia, Ornellaia, Quintessa, Chateau Lafite Rothschild…all red blends that are on the tip of every collector’s tongue. On the other end of the spectrum, we have widely recognizable brands like Prisoner, Josh, Decoy, BV, 19 Crimes and Menage a Trois who all have their place in the market too. Finally, what do all of these brands have in common? They are intentionally blended by the artist to create a memorable experience for the consumer. By blending grape varieties, a winemaker may dial up fruit or scale it back, increase tannin or soften it. At the end of the day, the winemaker’s design is showcased by that final blend: an exercise in crafting a perfectly pleasing balance for the consumer.
LION TAMER RED BLEND, NAPA VALLEY
47% Malbec, 24% Zinfandel, 19% Petite Sirah, 8% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% Petite Verdot and 1% Carignan
If there was ever a luxury, crowd-pleasing, domestically crafted wine, this is sure to be it. Hess' Lion Tamer Red is a true kitchen sink wine. Black cherry and black currant drive this wine forward with touches of spice from the Malbec; backbone and umph from the Petite Sirah create depth and style. Medium plus tannins grip you while the well-balanced fruit leave you wanting another sip.
TENUTA SAN GUIDO GUIDALBERTO, TUSCANY
60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot
Old-world blends offer a different expression. Here, the powerful Cabernet Sauvignon is blended with Merlot to lesson the strength of the wine. Vibrant dark-fruit from the Cabernet provide plum and blackberry flavors while the aromatic Merlot provide fragrant floral notes while a leathery and earthy component dials down the Cabernet the right way in this very pleasing medium bodied red.