Kelly J. Hayes : WineInk
When you buy a bottle of wine you have a choice. Do you want a wine that is made from the juice of a single grape varietal, or one that is made from a blend of the juices of two or more grape varietals? One is not necessarily better than another; they just represent two different types of wines and winemaking practices. Say you buy a wine labeled as a cabernet sauvignon. That wine may have been made from 100 percent cabernet sauvignon, or the winemaker may have chosen to blend in the juice of other grapes, augmenting the cabernet sauvignon to alter the taste, finish or, perhaps, the aging characteristics. In America, a wine labeled as being from a single grape must have 75 percent of its juice come from that grape.If you buy a 2005 Hess Collection Cabernet Sauvignon, you will get a wine that has been made with 82 percent cabernet sauvignon and then blended with 5 percent merlot, 4 percent syrah, 4 percent petite sirah and 4 percent petit verdot.Pick up a 2004 Clos Pegase Napa Valley Homage Cabernet Sauvignon and that wine will be made from 100 percent cabernet sauvignon. 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 the Provence region of 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 complete the wine with a number of other varietals to smooth out the finish.Even a wine made from 100 percent of the juice from one varietal may still have been blended. Using cabernet sauvignon as an example again, a winemaker may take juice from different plots of cabernet sauvignon in different vineyards, different appellations or regions, even from different vintages, to make a wine that will be labeled 100 percent cabernet sauvignon.That Clos Pegase Homage, for example, is a blend of grapes from both the Graveyard Hill Vineyard and the Palisades Vineyard. Obviously the winemaker felt that marrying the grapes from two different locales would give the wine certain desirable characteristics. In modern winemaking, most blends are made in the winery. That is, a field of cabernet sauvignon is grown, the grapes are picked, the wine is fermented and then the winemaker, who has grown, picked and fermented a separate barrel of syrah, will blend the juice of the two wines to get the desired effect. There are blends that use 50 percent splits of two grapes. There are wines that use four, 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 (with an alcohol level higher than acceptable), then the winemaker may decide to tamp down that level by blending that wine with another that has less alcohol. The latter wine could be of the same variety but may have been picked earlier, or perhaps came from a previous vintage. 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 still, ultimately, it is up to the winemaker to determine whether the wine meets his or her personal criteria for excellence.Next week we’ll talk about an ancient way of making wines called Field Blends that is experiencing a modern resurgence.Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and a black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.