When making a personal, namesake tomato marinara, an often secret mixture of ingredients creates your perfect sauce. You futz, taste and re-taste until it suits your palate. All over the world each vintage, winemakers also go through this painstaking process. They perfect their craft during years of effort, nitpicking over the tiniest of tannins and the smallest sugar variations — rolling up their sleeves and tasting their wines until they’re just right. When a Cabernet Sauvignon bowls over the senses, a creative winemaker reaches for other ingredients to even out a rough sip. Like Merlot, perhaps. The reasoning behind this age-old ritual is to get the flavor balanced, like when you add extra basil, garlic or salt to your sauce. And, like a cook, the winemaker strives to please his/her taste while creating something you’ll enjoy as well.
Why blend? Sometimes winemakers just like to have fun and concoct an entirely new wine flavor profile. These blends turn out to be the most enjoyable because the winemaker’s personality shines through. Australia’s Penfold’s and California’s Bonny Doon, Ridge Vineyards and Marietta Cellars are a few wineries that have introduced us to their unique style of wines. Most of the time, the percentages are listed on the label, so you can learn which different varietals strike your fancy.
But generally, blends are downright crucial. Sometimes a Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah or Tempranillo alone is just too tannic to release on unsuspecting palates. The harshness of the wine can assault your mouth and send you running for a cold beer. To woo you, the winemaker might add a dollop of smoother, fruitier Merlot to even out (or balance) a harsh or young Cabernet. And a little dab’ll do ya; even a 5 percent addition of another grape’s juice can change the wine experience. Most of the time, the percentages are on the label and in the U.S., if a bottle is labeled “Merlot”, the juice within must be at least 75 percent Merlot (90 percent in Oregon). However, if the wine is less than 75 percent of a variety, the winery normally labels it “Red Wine” or a fanciful name like “Clairvoyant” or “Apothic“.
In Europe, blends are part of the historic wine fabric. France has been blending wine for centuries in Bordeaux and the Rhône Valley. The majority of wineries in Bordeaux produce blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot or Malbec. California makes their own French-style red blend of at least three of these grapes, calling it Meritage (more about Meritage). White Meritage is a blend of the two white grapes originally from Bordeaux: Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. (There is a third white Bordeaux grape, Muscadelle, but it doesn’t show up often.) The Rhône Valley boasts one of the most famous blends in the wine world: Châteauneuf-du-Pape (sha toe NUFF doo POP), named after an area in the Southern part of France. Winemakers can use up to 13 different grapes for a Châteauneuf du Pape blend, with Grenache and Syrah grapes as a base. Because of the variety of grapes used, the style of this blend can range from smooth and fruity to heavy and tannic.
In Italy, it’s the same deal. Although the regional grape varieties are heavily mandated by the Italian government, blends are commonplace. In Tuscany, the Sangiovese grape rules, but Super Tuscans — a relatively new breed of Cabernet-based wines — have come to the forefront with a more modern take on Italian wines. Worth a look. (Read more about how Italian wines have changed)
So next time you’re in the market for a Cabernet or want to try something a little different, reach for the blends. They do have more fun.
Recommended red and white blend wines: