To blend or not to blend

Shiraz vs. “Red”

While visiting with friends over the past few months, I’ve noticed that, increasingly frequently, bottles like the Apothic Red are sitting on the counter. What’s interesting about this wine, and others like it, is that it doesn’t prominently display the grape variety on the label. The reason being that it consists of a blend of red grape varieties, without a single variety dominating the blend.

Wines from many of the most famous wine regions in Europe are blends. My favourite region, Bordeaux, is a blend of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. This is one of the reasons why on many bottles from Europe (especially those past the entry-level), you won’t find the grape variety or varieties being mentioned on the label. Instead, all you’ll find is the region the wine comes from, based on which you could derive (in most cases) what grape varieties are used. More about this later.

A bit of history (bear with me) …

Prior to the 1960’s, Europe produced the vast majority of quality wines, so consumers in those days were used to different styles of wines being associated with certain regions, which would be clearly indicated in the wine label. Once wine production started to get off the ground in California, these producers initially labeled their wines according to the European style of wine that their wines were supposed to mimic. As a result, you would be able to find a White Burgundy from California, since the winemaker wanted to communicate to his potential customers that his wine was made of the same grape variety as the one used for white Burgundy, that is, Chardonnay (which consumers wouldn’t be used to seeing on the label back then).

The changes in wine labelling practices were set in motion by Robert Mondavi in the 1960’s. He understood that in order to make wine labels easier to understand for the North American consumer, they needed to reflect the principal grape variety from which they were made. Clearly, in order to make that happen, a single grape variety would have to dominate in the wines that he produced. Consumers very much appreciated this practice, since they were now able to tell much easier what type of wine they were buying (e.g., a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Shiraz) and were able to differentiate the wines much more easily. Mondavi’s new winery took off and other producers in California and beyond soon followed suit in producing wines in which a single grape variety dominated and labelling them as such.

The rise of the red blend

So why then the recent rise of popularity in red blends, where you don’t know what  you’re getting by just looking at the label? There are two main benefits to a blend of grape varieties when compared to a single varietal wine:

  1. Most importantly, a blend of grape varieties creates the potential for each grape variety to complement the others. Each one contributes their strengths while compensating for the weaknesses of the other varieties. A blend can therefore be so much greater than the sum of its parts. As an illustration, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc are wonderful blending partners, whereby:
    • Cabernet Sauvignon contributes blackcurrant fruit, colour, and tannins.
    • Merlot adds richness and body. It softens Cabernet Sauvignon’s more aggressive character.
    • Cabernet Franc adds even more finesse and, most importantly, adds intensity to the blend’s aromas.
  2. Secondly, each variety ripens differently, so blends give wine producers more flexibility as weather conditions vary from year to year. For example, Merlot matures earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon, so in cooler years a producer’s Merlot might all ripen successfully, while some of his Cabernet Sauvignon grapes struggle to ripen. A blend gives the producer the flexibility to increase the percentage of Merlot during cooler years like these, while increasing the percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon in warmer years. This is especially important in wine regions where weather conditions can vary substantially from year to year (as they do in Bordeaux).

Back to California

Interestingly, the Californians themselves understand the above two principles all too well. Blending grape varieties is an important part of most wines from California, but as long as 75% of the wine is made up from a single grape variety, the producer is allowed to only mention that grape variety on the label. In other words, in order for a Californian wine producer to be allowed to put a single grape variety on the label, the wine has to contain only 75% of that grape variety. As an example, one of my favourites from California is the Three Saints Cabernet Sauvignon, which only contains 77% Cabernet Sauvignon, supplemented by 12% Cabernet Franc, 8% Petit Verdot, and 3% Malbec.

A side note on varietal labeling

Since Mondavi started labelling his wines by variety, the world of wine has expanded immensely. As a result, relying solely on the label’s grape variety to determine the wine’s character can be quite deceiving. Chardonnay is a great example: when produced in cooler climates (e.g., Chablis), it generally produces light bodied, mineral wines with green fruit characteristics and high acidity. In warmer climates (e.g., California), it often produces wines that display rich, buttery, and nutty characteristics, particularly when aged in oak. So as the world of wine continues to expand, finding out what regions appeal to us is becoming increasingly important in trying to understand the differences between wines made from the same grape variety.

As you can probably tell, I’m a fan of red (and, for that matter, white) blends. When done well, they can offer  greater balance and complexity compared to single variety offerings, so it’s exciting to see more blends on store shelves and the kitchen counters of those we enjoy an occasional glass of wine with.

Lastly, to make things a bit easier on everyone, an overview of the main grape varieties for some of Europe’s main wine regions can be found on the following page: Main grape varieties by European wine region.

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