In simple terms, wine can be fashioned in two ways.
It can be made from a single variety — merlot, say, or pinot noir — which is how most Americans buy their wines. Or it can be made from a mix of grapes.
In France, especially, blending is a way of life, complete with rigid rules about grape varieties and the proportions that can be used. Most of the great Bordeaux reds, for instance, rely on blending at least some of that region’s six approved varieties.
Not that American winemakers are strangers to blends. Most, however, follow the long-established European rules about mixing; the members of the Meritage Association adhere to Bordeaux strictures, while others follow practices originally found in the Rhône and elsewhere.
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But our maverick wine culture also includes winemakers who love to break the rules — pairing grapes that never would be allowed together (officially) in Europe. The hope is to achieve a desired taste, Old World rules be damned, or perhaps to find a home for grapes that otherwise wouldn’t make the cut.
“It’s kind of whatever we’ve got on hand,” says John Freeman, winemaker at Washington’s Waterbrook Winery, whose 2003 Mélange blend became an instant hit when it made Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list last year. “I think the public is actually quickly becoming well aware that blends provide something that single varieties can’t.”
If using a single grape is essentially a roll of the dice, blending has long had the virtue of allowing winemakers to compose wines from a toolbox of tastes and aromas, much as a chef would compose a recipe.
Many non-traditional blends incorporate fruit that originally hailed from different regions of Europe. The ’03 Mélange calls on Cabernet sauvignon, merlot and Cabernet franc (all Bordeaux grapes), then adds in sangiovese (Italy) and syrah (the Rhône). While you might have to wander 500 miles from Bordeaux to find sangiovese, the Mélange grapes are all grown in Washington’s Columbia Valley.
Such efforts aren’t exactly new: Industrial wineries have long taken a kitchen-sink approach to produce cheap table wine. And the famed Super Tuscan wines only exist because a handful of Italians in the 1970s decided to do an end-run around government regulations, blending sangiovese with Bordeaux varieties.
What’s different in recent years is that a new crop of respected U.S. winemakers have raised the bar on blends, crafting excellent, easy-drinking wines under $20 from grapes that until now were never intentionally matched.
These wines are intended for the dinner table, not aging. Some are produced in large batches, such as Mélange or Cline’s Red Truck; others yield just a few hundred cases. But even accomplished vintners are increasingly willing to put their own names on these blends and give them fanciful names.
Often, the wines start as a way to recoup money spent on grapes that didn’t quite fit an intended purpose. Santa Barbara Winery’s ZCS blend came into being in 1998 after winemaker Bruce McGuire was offered a batch of carignane — a Rhône grape known more for hardiness than flavor — found by a vineyard manager among the rows of the Stolpman vineyards in nearby Santa Ynez Valley.
“After we got it and we made it, then it’s like, ‘What are we going to do with it?’ ” McGuire says.
He merged the wine with some extra zinfandel, but it needed an aromatic boost, so he tossed in sangiovese and released 800 cases. Seven years later, the $13 wine, a mix of American, French and Italian tastes, has more than tripled production.
Such projects rely heavily on winemakers’ skills. Traditional European blends have been refined over centuries; though newfangled combos generally follow similar blending principles — and need a lot of tasting, and retasting, to hone a precise mix — some are so unique that what’s ultimately a successful blend might fail miserably in less skilled hands.
Perhaps the most unusual combination I’ve seen lately, and one of the most extraordinary, is the Rubeo blend of pinot noir and syrah from Oregon’s Penner-Ash Wine Cellars. Pinot prodigy Lynn Penner-Ash and her husband, Ron, compiled the blend from young-vine pinot noir they felt wasn’t yet ready for their $50 reserve bottling and syrah primarily from southern Oregon’s Del Rio vineyard.
The grapes form a Mutt-and-Jeff study in contrasts: Pinot’s identity is centered on delicate, subtle tastes; even in France, it’s rarely blended. Syrah is brawny and versatile, with deep flavors. The Penner-Ashes needed repeated tastings to find the right balance for the more forceful grape, which accounts for about one-quarter of the blend.
“If we were to go over that percentage in syrah it would mask that subtlety and fruit layer of the pinot,” says Ron Penner-Ash. “It’s kind of a yin-and-yang thing going on.”
The 2003 Rubeo has vanished out the door so quickly that 200 cases of a new non-vintage bottling are due in May.
Meanwhile, winemakers willing to take such gambles are always looking for new tools to add to the toolbox. Santa Barbara Winery’s Bruce McGuire is eyeing for new blends not only syrah but also primitivo (a very close relative of zinfandel) and such obscure grapes as Italian lagrein and France’s rustic négrette.
“I'm looking at possibilities all the time,” he says.
Penner-Ash 2002 Rubeo ($20)
You can’t quite imagine it all working together, but there’s bright berry and spice, and also a dark, foresty note with some salt. Simultanously light and deep, it’s a curious, stunning wine with a supple structure and a lush yet delicate finish.
Waterbrook 2003 Mélange Columbia Valley ($13)
Big, generous and approachable. It’s built around both red and black fruit, but the blend offers aromatic notes and just a hint of acidity lurking in the background. Waterbrook has made Mélange an essential part of its annual production, and it’s easy to see why.
Six Prong 2002 Columbia Valley ($13)
Washington master vintner Charlie Hoppes leaves his mark on far more expensive wines, but this annual effort mixes six grapes primarily from the Alder Ridge vineyards above the Columbia River — the ’02 blend being Cabernet sauvignon, Cabernet franc, grenache, merlot, malbec and syrah. Syrah’s briny aroma mixes with dark fruit and a balanced, bright taste. There’s oaky vanilla and smoke, and a firm tannic backbone. A brilliant display of blending.
Hedges 2002 CMS Columbia Valley ($11)
From this established producer on Washington’s Red Mountain, CMS (for Cabernet, merlot and syrah) offers something for everyone. Merlot brings bright cherry, while syrah offers black fruit and pepper, and the Cab provides tannins to finish it off. Nicely layered.
Bishop’s Peak 2002 Rock Solid Red Paso Robles ($10)
A syrah-Cab blend from the folks at Talley Vineyards in Arroyo Grande, Calif. Dusky fruit, pepper and cocoa, with big palate-sticking tannins, plus a rich syrah note on the nose. It’s a great wine for a hunk of meat and to expand a Cab lover’s horizons.
Sineann 2003 Red Table Wine ($18)
Oregon producer Peter Rosback makes everything from pinot noir to zinfandel, and claims to put a bit of everything into this. Pinot’s bright, tangy fruit dominates, but juicy, rounder tastes follow, with a sweet chocolatey note. Only problem? It’s even harder to find than the Rubeo.
Santa Barbara Winery 2002 ZCS ($13)
There’s a bright, acidic note in the ’02, perhaps too much for some, but it’s matched by dark fruit from old-vine zinfandel. That helps it balance spicy dishes, whether Mexican salsa or a plate of red-sauce pasta. The ’03 is the current vintage, and a savvy substitute for your next bottle of Chianti.
Cline Cellars 2003 Red Truck ($9)
The ’03 from this Sonoma winery contains less exotic grapes than ’02, if you can believe it: merlot, syrah, Cabernet franc and petite sirah. (The ’02 was built around mourvèdre and included such obscurities as alicante bouschet.) It’s modest, fruit-focused and meant for a casual meal. Worth keeping a bottle around for burger and pizza nights.
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