”Wines are like people; some of us need a lot of love – an advocate that brings out our best in us,” says Richard de los Reyes owner winemaker for Row Eleven Wines and the Riddler. “That is what wine blending is all about—bringing out the best in individual wines.”
For years I thought of blended wines as being inferior to the varietal labeled wines; no real reason to feel that way, it had crept into my consciousness as a fact. Even in my local wine store, they have a small section specifically labeled as “Blended Wines”. The implication to me was that blended wines were less deserving. Now I started asking myself, why do some people, including myself, respond to “Blended Wines” as if they were of a lesser quality and heritage? Then I read an interviewed with Mr. Richard de los Reyes, a highly respected California winemaker, where he said, “…by blending, winemakers can make more complex wines”. Wow, that is a bold statement from a winemaker with 40 years experience making fine wines.
I am convinced; the average wine drinker is oblivious to the fact that most wines, in all price ranges, are actually blends (even when the label denotes a specific varietal). Even my favorite Petite Sirah is a blend incorporating 3 other varietals; yet the label clearly identifies it as a Petite Sirah. That is because the wine meets the TTB arbitrary standard that 75% percentage of wine is from a single varietal, the other 25% of wine can be from other varietals. Below 75% varietal, the winery must call it a red or white blend.
In France, Bordeaux wine is regulated by the government; “the name Bordeaux is primarily associated with the red wine blend. (Red wines are traditionally those used in blending.) The most famous of red blends are Red Bordeaux’s made from blending 5 different varieties, though the proportion of each depends on the geographic location of the winery that made the wine,” as noted by Vine Pair website.
Buying red blends with fancy names is contrary to the American consumer habit of buying wine by their varietal names. Many consumers hesitate before purchasing blends, wondering if the wine is as good as a 100% varietal. But, the category is growing. This means there must be something to be said for blends.
I found a blended wine that I truly believe is one of the finest wines I have ever drunk. It is a blended riddle of 7 different red varietals that make for a very complex wine. It is appropriately called “the Riddler”. Because none of the varietals used in this wine make up more than the arbitrary 75%, it is relegated to being a step-child called a red blend. It is this wine that got me on a campaign to understand why more people doesn’t appreciate blended wines regardless of blending percentages and focus on what matters-aroma, taste, texture, and mouth feels.
A sommelier acquaintance also commented about Richard de los Reyes and his work in high end wines as the owner of Row Eleven Winery. Most Row Eleven wines are sold primarily through restaurants. “We concentrate on restaurant sales, because sommeliers are the best way to introduce new wine to wine lovers. Restaurant’s with sommeliers allow the consumer to taste wine with an expert standing by to help guide them,” says de los Reyes. If you are new to a particular wine or new to wine in general, this is the best way to learn. Offer the sommelier a glass and let them taste with you. Take advantage of their knowledge.”
“This next statement is probably sacrilegious to the ‘’’’great wines are made in the vineyard crowd’’’’, but I happen to believe all wines benefit to some degree by blending,” he continues. “Blends don’t always have to be made from different varietals. Sometimes they can be different fermentation variations of the same varietal.”
I am learning that this is the artistic side of winemaking, and that practice makes perfect because there is no recipe book for blending a great wine. I am beginning to understand that making wonderful wines requires an accumulation of experiences. One must know the vineyards, what the vineyard is expressing each vintage, and how to blend those expressions into something better than the original. Most people believe that blending is to keep consistency in taste. While this is true, as is blending for overcoming a wines deficiency, Mr. de los Reyes uses his blending skills to create new and different wines.” In my conversations with winemakers about blending, one point has stood out for me. If you want to create a new wine that is special, the wines you use to make up your blend need to be good.
It’s clear a talented winemaker can blend not only to create something new but to enhance, soften or increase the different characters they want their wines to present, such as alcohol content, tannins, acidity, and aromas. As a consumer, this explains why I have never enjoyed a Mendoza Cabernet Sauvignon; the taste and aromas are just too edgy for me. There the options are even more restricted. In Argentina regulations dictate the varietal be at least 80% so that does not leave a lot of room to get creative in blends. I am realizing the art of blending has a lot more creativity involved when there is room to work the art of blending.
Laws around the world dictate the levels one can blend. Burgundy red wines are made from only Pinot Noir grapes; they are not blended with other varieties—regulation is the reason in this case. Many U.S. wineries produce wines that are 100% varietal. The appellation of Bordeaux is often viewed as left bank and right bank with distinct wines from each. Talk about regulations: In Bordeaux “each appellation is governed by Appellation d’origine contrôlée laws which dictate the permissible grape varieties, alcohol level, methods of pruning and picking, density of planting and appropriate yields as well as various winemaking techniques,” as pointed out by Oz Clark.. The same laws that are created to protect the consumer, grower and estate often dictate winemaking style. Many of these laws are simple examples of politics (domestic and international), but all affect the process of making and labeling wine.
In my conversations with winemakers about blending, one point has stood out for me. If you want to create a new wine that is special, the wines you use to make up your blend need to be good.
Even consumers can experiment with wine blending. Feel free to experiment with the process; you will be shocked with what can come from experimenting. I have heard of some wine bar encouraging patrons to experiment with combinations of wines. Here are some general approaches for the do-it-yourselfers:
- Have a profile in mind for your new wine; commit your profile to writing as a constant reference.
- Because the first experience with a wine is the aroma, that is probably the best place to start a blending experiment.
- Focus on taste that includes: sweet, bitter, salt, acid, and alcohol.
- Research and know the vineyards from which you have chosen your wine combinations.
- If you are going to blend using wines you have experiences with, ask the winemaker/winery the yeast he/she used. It isn’t important when you first start out blending but it is fun to know for future references. Yeasts bring a lot of enhancements to taste and aroma.
- Start with small batches and keep great notes on the formulas and the corresponding results.
Push the envelope. Don’t be afraid to order red and white blends and aggressively look for the labeled “blended wine”, many have fun names, and you will find a whole new world of wine experiences. Try and pickout the varietals the winemaker used that contribute to the taste, aromas, texture (mouth feel), and color in the wine. Mostly, just have fun.