By Alfonso Sánchez
As the name implies, blended wines are those made using different varieties of grapes. The emphasis is on varieties because for example blends of the same variety (e.g. cabernet sauvignon) form various vineyards is not recognized as a blend by the major existing regulations on the subject.
Blended wines are predominant in the old world (Europe) while varietals (wine made mostly from a single variety) are prevalent in the new world. However it seems that blended wines are as old as wine itself. Unfortunately many blended wines in the XX century gained a bad reputation because certain producers used blending to produce inexpensive low-quality red table wines to get rid of inferior crops or wine surpluses. Hence the new world merchants opted for the varietal type as a way to convey to the consumers the notion of superior quality. This bad reputation is far from reality and no longer the case. In fact, the world’s most famous wines are blends and blends are more widely sought after today including in the new world (Champagne, Sherry and Bordeaux wines are just a few prominent examples).
Blending of different varieties when properly done may result in a wine of a quality superior to those made from the individual varieties. Blending is used to enhance color, aromas, balance, flavors, structure and finish. As they say the whole is better than the simple sum of the components’ attributes. Blending is thus an art and the winemaker is the king as he or she selects the best fruit and the proportions of varieties that go into the blend. It is like cooking a good dish, where the chef selects the main ingredients and condiments to maximize pleasure. Besides improving the wine, blending is used also to maintain consistency over time (Champagne and Sherry) or across bottles of a particular batch from various vineyards.
Even though almost all wines (mainly reds but also many whites) are blends, there are certain regulatory requirements to label wines as varietals or blends. Most regulations for example require that a wine contains around 80 to 85 percent of single variety to be labeled as a varietal (in the USA the allowable limit is 75 percent). Wines with a lower proportions of a single variety than the minimum required for varietals can be labeled as blends. In the USA certain blends are under a special category called Meritage subject to specific regulations (click here for more on Meritage).
Blending generally involves fermenting different varieties separately and then blending them. Alternatively, the varieties may be fermented together from the beginning, a technique called co-fermentation (for example in the Rhône wines the Grenache and Syrah are co-fermented with roughly 5 percent of Viognier). While many blends are vintage blends, meaning that they are made of different types of grapes that were all grown in the same year, some are non-vintage blends. These latter blends are most commonly found in port or sparkling wines such as Champagne, and use grapes grown in different vintages in order to utilize their different tastes and tannins.
These are some examples of blended wines:
France’s Bordeaux and Southern Rhone regions are two of the most famous regions for blended wines. Bordeaux wines are a blend of Cabernet, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Melbac and Petite Verdot grapes. Each wine is different and hand crafted by the winemaker. Cabernet and Merlot predominate with the other varietals included for adding subtle distinction. In the Southern Rhone, the main grape varietals are Grenache, Syrah and Mouvedre. With up to 10 other varietals allowed, Rhone style wines can be diverse and intriguing. Southern Rhone’s most famous blend is Châteauneuf-du-Pape. This blend traditionally allowed up to 13 different grape varietals, but recently has been allowed up to 18 different varietals.
Italy Chianti (Sangiovese with Canaiolo Nero, Malvasia and Trebiano) and Super Tuscans that blend Sangiovese with Bordeaux traditional varieties.
Most Argentinian blends use Malbec as the dominant grape; Cabernet Franc or Sauvignon can add tannins and body to the wine, while Merlot may be used to add color and smoothness.
Chilean Primus and Finis Terrae are excellent examples of new world Bordeaux-type blends.
Blending can create unbelievably complex and delicious wines worth trying and keeping in our cellars as shown in the recent Wine Club tastings. Let’s be adventurous and explore them.