If blends are never on your radar, time to widen your repertoire
When it comes to wine blends, many people assume that they are just a mix of various grapes that winemakers throw together – like the ‘bitsa’ breed. (Blends kind of have a PR problem in that regard).
But, if you love wine and you don’t know about blends, you are missing out.
Blending is a percentages game
Unlike a blend, a standard varietal like chardonnay or pinot noir is wine made from the same type grape. You can get a single varietal that includes grapes of the same type from other vineyards or even other types of grape but must contain a certain quantity of one type of grape. For example, in Australia a single variety must consist of 85 percent of that grape (same in Argentina), 75 percent in the US, and 80 percent in Europe.
Generally, a wine is considered a blend if it contains anywhere between 40-70 percent of one type of grape and a smaller mix of two or more other grapes – depending on the country.
Make no mistake, making blends is a science. Blending is a technique that winemakers have been using for hundreds of years to fine-tune the taste and create complex flavours that appeal to every part of the palette.
It requires a touch of the obsessed scientist relentlessly varying components – such as grapes, vintages and storage conditions – and testing and tweaking them to maximise aromas, body, texture, finish and colour. A truly master blender finds a way to emphasise each grape’s strong point and harmonise its flavours with others.
When done right, the result is a wine that is so much more than the sum of its parts and an abundance of flavour. There are infinite possibilities to blending.
What’s your favourite type of wine? Even though your automatic reaction might not be a blend, be aware that some of the world’s best-known wines aren’t single varietals:
- Champagne – while you can get single grape varieties (Blanc de Blancs or Blanc de Noirs), champagne is typically a blend of pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier that are combined in a diverse array of conditions and processes resulting in an abundance of different styles.
- Bordeaux – This renowned French wine is produced by combining cabernet sauvignon and merlot in various proportions.
- Chianti – The Italian wine forever immortalised on screen by Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs typically features sangiovese, canaiolo nero and/or Trebbiano.
- Port – Like champagne, you can only officially call it ‘port’ if it originates from a specific location in Portugal. In Australia, this style of wine is now categorised under a number of labels, such as ‘fortified’ and ‘dessert’ wine. Many official ports are produced from a blend of five grapes – Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesca, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz, and Tinto Cão.
Australia’s blends are something else
The most common and blends in Australia are shiraz and cabernet sauvignon. De Bortoli, Hardys, Penfolds and Blue Pyrenees, as you would expect, have made blending an artform. In fact, in 2017 Penfolds announced it had created a blend of three of its famous Grange shiraz vintages that will be sold to wine lovers all over the world for $3,000 a bottle. (Incidentally, Penfolds’ master winemaker Max Schubert was one of this country’s red blend pioneers.)
In recent years, consumers’ willingness to try new wines may have led to the great experimentation and very hands-on approach that Australia’s cunning boutique winemakers have taken to blending. They use a diverse, awesome array of fruits that are at their disposal in abundance across the country, they experiment with ageing processes and storage environments and are producing their own versions of Bordeaux blends that are stunning in their own right.
If you get the chance, I would encourage you to try blends from Australia’s world-class winemakers Wanted Man, Yarra Yering, Heathcote, Glowstone Wines, Evoi and the 2018 Boutique Wine Show winners for Best Bordeaux blend and Best Rhone or other red blend, Mandoon Estate (for their 2017 Cabernet Merlot) and Millbrook (for their 2016 Grenache Shiraz Mourvedre), respectively.
If you like them, keep an eye out for trends in blending. With constant experimentation and changing environmental conditions (terroir) comes constant innovation. For example, apparently, pinot shiraz is making a comeback and is well worth your time.
I’ve also heard of some interesting marriages taking place between fiano and viognier; tempranillo, bobal, merlot and shiraz; and even shiraz and gin!
Don’t let anyone tell you that you need to be an expert to enjoy and get to know any wine, let alone blends. A good place to start is when you go to buy wine, pay attention to what sort of flavours you are craving at the time as well as what (if any) food you will drink it with. Then read the descriptions and, if in doubt, ask for recommendations.