Blending and Shading

As any wine devotee knows, all wines are essentially blends. Even those boldly labeled cabernet sauvignon or merlot are blends. U.S. law, after all, only requires that a wine labeled by its varietal contain a minimum of 75% of that particular grape. Australia and South Africa have similar laws, and those fiercest of wine-lovers, the French, have very specific rules about making a Beaujolais or a white Burgundy, all of which require a blend of particular grape varietals.

Blending is one of the most critical components in wine-making. Done well, it ensures a wine that is balanced. Never too fruity, never too tannic. It also adds layers to what would otherwise be a very one-dimensional beverage.

It’s also as much an art form as it is a science. At larger wine-makers, who can pull grapes from different properties, there’s a great deal of juice that goes towards savoring and tasting by the master blender. Every crop has different qualities, based on weather, location, air quality, and a long list of other factors. And while a particular grape may be associated with a particular flavor, say that peppery kick one expects from a shiraz, you may find yourself with a batch of shiraz grapes that are heavy on the fruit, and have only a whisper of oomph.

It’s up to the blender to sample each batch as they come in, and make a decision about what is needed to turn the basic into something amazing. Does that year’s batch of merlot from Sonoma need a little more cabernet to off-set a dry flavor? Perhaps the Riesling tastes like plump fruits, so big that the vine has tipped over and still the fruit grows fatter and fatter. Sounds yummy – except that the fruit is likely to be heavy on the sugars. It’s like fermenting pixie stix.

Yes, we know about pixie stix. Notorious even managed to sample some one Halloween. His ears didn’t stop twitching for days.

But back to our blenders. While it’s true that many blends are dictated by tradition, or law in some areas, there’s still always a little wiggle room built in. Consider that classic Italian, Chianti. In it’s current incarnation, it’s required to have a minimum of 70% Sangiovese and can be blended with Canaiolo or Colorino. More recent legislation has also allowed for the use of Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot in very limited amounts. But everything else is pretty much off the table – if you want to call your wine Chianti. So you have 30% of your wine to play around with and achieve what will hopefully be a wine that will bring happiness to those who drink it.

A true artist of the blend can taste the juice of a grape just pulled from the vineyard and already know what to expect in the fermentation process and what type of blending will be needed to bring out the best flavors – and hide those flavors that are less desirable. By the time the juice has become wine, the blenders will already have a plan for the final creation. Each year’s  harvest is meticulously described, the good and bad qualities carefully accounted, and suggestions for blending are at hand when the barrels (or vats) are opened. Another round of tasting, and then the process begins.

It sounds like such a simple thing, mixing wines to achieve something better. Yet for anyone who has ever attempted this, you know that sometimes this can be perilously difficult. Many wineries and wine bars now allow patrons to design their own wines. You’re provided samples of the wines available that day, and often a basic recipe for a typical blend with those same wines. Then you’re left to create the wine of your dreams. Or not.

Those who design blends for a living will share a few simple suggestions to improve your own home-grown attempts at this art:

  1. First, always use wines from the same year, especially if you have some grand plan for storing your wine. This also ensures that you don’t end up with some awkward collision of youthful tartness and old must. You know that only the worst qualities of both will rise to the top in that mash-up.
  2. Second, use wines that are good. If you try to “fix” a bad wine by blending it with a good wine, you’ll be very disappointed and out a bottle of good wine.
  3. Third, blend wines that are similar. The flavors will complement each other rather than clash. Do you really want to taste a peppered peach with oak overtones?
  4. Finally, when you think you have your perfect blend, don’t start mixing it all together right then and there. Take a step back, give your taste buds time to recover and then come back in a day or two and re-taste your creation. If it still rings true, then it might be time to pull out your bottles, but if it doesn’t hold up as well as you thought on the second try, go back and start again.

Perhaps the best advice we can offer on blending is don’t be afraid. One of the best bottles we ever had was the blending of remnants from two different bottles of wine – a California cab and an Australian shiraz. And it was done as a lark. So go out there, brave oenophiles, and do a little blending of your own.

(Oh, and yes, we did say we would offer words of feline wisdom more often. So here’s today’s final thought – there are few things in life as pleasant as a warm nap in the sun.)


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