Aspen Times Weekly: What is the Blend?
UNDER THE INFLUENCE
2012 Hess Select North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon
Affordable, friendly, and well-crafted, this is a perfect California wine for that Saturday night hanger steak or burger. Big fruit at the front and a smooth, round finish. If you want a taste of Napa without spending the big bucks normally associated with the region, this is your wine.
When you buy a bottle of wine you have many choices. One is a matter of taste: Do you want a wine that is made from the juice of a single grape variety, or one that is made from a blend of the juices of two or perhaps many more grape varietals?
One is not necessarily better than the other, they just represent two different types of wines and winemaking practices.
Say you opt to buy a wine labeled as a Cabernet Sauvignon. You want that full body, dark in the glass, tannic on the tongue taste. What you may not know is whether the wine was made from 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, or if the winemaker chose to “blend” in the juice of other grapes, augmenting the Cabernet Sauvignon to alter the taste, finish or, perhaps, aging characteristics.
In America, according to law, a wine labeled as being from a single grape must have at least 75 percent of its juice come from that grape. But that means that 25 percent, or fully a quarter of the juice, can come from other grapes. Your “Cabernet” may be a Cab-Merlot, or Cab/Cab Franc/Malbec — and it is still legal to call it Cabernet Sauvignon provided at least 75 percent of the juice is derived from the designated grape.
Say you put down a $20 on a 2012 Hess Select North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon, you will be getting a wine that has been made with 75 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and then blended with 9 percent Petite Sirah, 8 percent Merlot, 4 percent Syrah, and 4 percent Malbec. The winemakers at Hess, using their expertise and talents as blenders, have decided that to produce the best possible wines for this bottling, adding the juice of other grapes made the wine better than it was if made from straight Cabernet Sauvignon.
If you spend $30 for a Conn Creek 2012 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, you’ll get a wine made from 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. Their winemaker determined that the structure and balance of this wine is best served by using a single varietal.
Which one is better? That is for you to decide.
There are many wines that use a number of different grapes to come up with unique flavor profiles and characteristics. The great, bold wines from Chateauneauf-du-Pape (CDP) in Southern France allow the use of 13 separate grape varietals in the blend. A CDP winemaker may use Grenache as a base to build fruity and sweet characteristics, blend in Syrah or Mourvedre to add strength and robustness, and then finish the wine with a number of other varietals to smooth out the finish. The entire list includes: French wine law allows the use of 13 separate grapes in the construction of this famed wine from the southern Rhône wine region. Actually, 14 if you count Grenache and its sister grape, grenache blanc. This list is the order for the production of the grapes in the region: Grenache/Grenache Blanc, Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault, Clairette, Bourboulenc, Roussanne, Counoise, Muscardin, Vaccarese, Picpoul, Picardan and Terret Noir.
Even if a wine that is made from 100 percent of the juice from one varietal that does not mean that that wine has not been blended. Using Cabernet Sauvignon as an example once again, a winemaker may take juice from different plots of Cabernet Sauvignon in different vineyards and/or different appellations or regions, to make a wine that will be labeled 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon.
That Conn Creek Cab, for example, is made by blending 100 percent Cabernet grapes from the Collins Holystone Vineyard (40 percent), just north of St. Helena, Stagecoach Vineyard on Atlas Peak (23percent), Surber Vineyard in Calistoga (7 percent) and the Conn Creek Estate Vineyard in Rutherford (5 percent). Obviously the winemaker felt that marrying the grapes from different locales would give the wine the characteristics that the wine called for.
Most blends are made in the winery. That is, a field of Cabernet Sauvignon is grown, the grapes are picked, and the wine is fermented and placed in barrels. The winemaker will taste the wines from different plots and then decide which “blend” of the juice from the different barrels will create the desired profile.
There are blends that use 50 percent splits of two grapes. There are wines that use four or five different grapes, or more. A California “Meritage” wine may be made from any combination of up to six grapes and cannot contain more than 90 percent of any one grape.
Blending wines is an art as well as a science. Experienced winemakers learn that their instincts are vital in making choices as to what varieties to blend together and in what percentages. But there are also tools that allow a winemaker to measure characteristics of a particular wine and then make adjustments based on very specific formulas.
If a wine comes in too “hot” (has an alcohol level that is higher than acceptable), then the winemaker may decide to tamp down that level by blending that wine with another wine that has less alcohol. That wine could be of the same variety but may have been picked earlier, or perhaps later.
A winemaker can turn to compositional formulas for help in making their blends. If the alcohol content needs adjustment, the acidity is too high or the wines are too tannic, a winemaker can use tables that suggest exact blends to change the wine. But it still, ultimately, it is up to the purview of the winemaker to make the determination of whether the wine meets their personal criteria for excellence.
Of course, all of this is a matter of taste. What matters most is yours.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“2023 predicted to be the Vintage of a Lifetime in Napa Valley,” proclaimed the headline this week in a press release sent out by the Napa Valley Vintners, the trade organization that represents the growers and producers in America’s most famed wine region. If there is anyone more optimistic than winemakers, it is the group that represents them.