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The virtues of blending

11 Aug 2009 by Jancis Robinson

Eben Sadie (pictured) is widely regarded by South Africa's younger wine producers as a prophet in his own land, if not in Priorat, northern Spain, where he also grows and makes Dits del Terra. According to him, the New World's obsession with varietal wines, those made from and labelled with the name of a single grape variety, is holding back progress outside Europe. For Sadie, blends of different grape varieties such as his own Columella and Palladius from the renascent inland Swartland region of the Cape are the way forward.

He argues that this is particularly true in warmer and maritime climates where the growing season is relatively short, so wines made from a single vine variety, so-called varietal wines, are necessarily less interesting and nuanced than a blend of different varieties. Certainly the archetypal maritime wine region, Bordeaux, has been dependent on varietal blending for centuries. There are at least two good reasons for its recipe of varying proportions of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot plus small portions of Petit Verdot, Malbec and, increasingly since Chilean growers drew the world's attention to this old Bordeaux variety, Carmenère. The first is that Cabernet Sauvignon on its own can be pretty austere in a climate as relatively cool as Bordeaux's, so it needs the flesh of Merlot to fill in the gaps - and the others can add interest to the blend. The second is that they flower at different times so that, again in this unpredictable climate, having more than one variety in the ground offers a degree of insurance against the risk of terrible weather at crucial bloom time.

On the other hand, few wine lovers would argue that there is much wrong with a great Montrachet or Chambertin made from nothing but Chardonnay and Pinot Noir respectively. But Sadie maintains that these examples, along with great German Riesling, Piemontese Nebbiolo and Loire Chenin Blanc, for example, prove that in cooler, more continental climates where the grapes stay longer on the vine, there is time to build up interesting, terroir-derived characters in a wine made from a lone variety. 'Grown in an oceanic climate, varietal wine does not declare its origin. When you drink Barolo from Serralunga you have a little bit of Serralunga in your house.

'In the New World we are experimenting. Europe is an advanced model of wine production and our blueprint. Making monovarietals is the easy way to go - typified by California, where they have done one variety after another as fashions change: Cabernet, then Merlot, then Pinot. But the New World varietal drive is keeping the New World behind in terms of wine complexity.'

This may be a bit unfair on California's top producers, many of whom moved away from monovarietals some time ago, and have been blending small portions of other Bordeaux varieties in with their Cabernets for quality-driven reasons. At the other end of the price spectrum, bottlers of more basic varietally labelled wines, all over the world, have a tendency to blend in up to the maximum proportion permitted without having to mention them on the label, usually 15%, of cheaper varieties. This of course is done for purely commercial rather than quality reasons.

But I must admit that when I am tasting through ranges of wines from an individual producer, I often find myself being far more intrigued and beguiled by blends of different grape varieties than by the same old Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz/Syrah.They do often seem to have more interest to them. Perhaps Sadie is right. Or perhaps their novel appeal is much stronger to a wine professional or serious wine lover like me than it would be to a wine beginner who finds comforting familiarity rather than yawn-inducing sameness when confronted by a bank of wines carrying the names of the best-known international grape varieties.

And there are other reasons for favouring blends. For top Turkish architect turned winemaker Resit Soley, varietal blending is treasured as one of the winemaking elements in which he can most freely exercise his creativity. Australian wine writer Max Allen is another vocal proponent of inter-varietal blending. He has already taken a stand by championing those varieties known as 'alternative' in Australia - ie newer than Shiraz, Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay, Semillon and Riesling (see Landmark Australia - alternative varieties).They already constitute well over five per cent of all Australian plantings and are rapidly extending their influence. 'The next stage', he said when over in London last year presenting some of his favourite examples to British wine writers, 'is for Australian winemakers to be sufficiently confident in the individual varietal character of these varieties to start to blend them. I'd love to see, for instance, a Wrattonbully Viognier/Marsanne, but the industry is still generally anti blending.'

This reminds me, and reflects my frequent status as an editor, that as far as I can tell, there is no international standard in how more than one grape variety name is written on a label. 'Viognier Marsanne', 'Viognier/Marsanne' or 'Viognier-Marsanne'?

It also reminds me just how particularly happily the Rhône and southern French varieties - Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne, Vermentino (Rolle), Grenache Blanc, Bourboulenc, Clairette for whites and Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cinsault and Carignan for reds - blend together. And their natural habitat is certainly warmer, maritime wine regions.

But there are of course many sorts of blend other than varietal blends. I was reminded of this while listening to the great Austrian winemaker Willi Bründlmayer present some of his wines to a gathering of Masters of Wine, celebrating the fact that our first non-British chairman is Austrian Pepi Schuller. 'I'm very shy, believe it or not', confessed Bründlmayer.  'And because of that I almost prefer producing single-vineyard wines to making blends, because with single-vineyard wines, it's the vineyard that takes responsibility. With blends, they're the creation of the winemaker rather than nature, and the winemaker has to take personal responsibility.' (The polar opposite of Resit Soley's view.)

No producer has championed this sort of geographical blending more than Penfolds of Australia - most particularly but not exclusively with its flagship wines. Penfolds Grange is nowadays made mainly from Shiraz grown in the Barossa Valley but there is usually some fruit from Magill on the outskirts of Adelaide and some too from McLaren Vale, plus sometimes a little bit of Cabernet Sauvignon. At least that means it can be labelled with the 'geographic indication', Australia's answer to appellation controlée, South Australia. Grange's white wine counterpart, Yattarna, which has (so far) been made up exclusively of Chardonnay, may contain grapes from three different states. The current, 2006, vintage has ingredients from the Adelaide Hills, the island of Tasmania and from Henty on the southern Victorian coast. In both cases, the wine is extremely expressive, the result of blending ingredients chosen simply on the basis of blind qualitative tastings. Yet such flexible geographical blending would be unthinkable in Europe.

Well, almost unthinkable.The team at the revered Château Palmer in Margaux has recently started to recreate a blend of wines grown in their Bordeaux vineyards with wine produced in the northern Rhône, a nod to the well-documented historic practice of adding guts to red bordeaux by 'Hermitage-ing' it. And, while it provides Thomas Duroux of Palmer with a good excuse to visit his friends in the Rhône, this is not the only reason for the blend. Perhaps all round the world there is a slow acknowledgement that blending can sometimes be better.

Comments please.

Comments

I think that the consumer has rejected expensive non-traditional blends because of a deep-seated fear that things could just get out of hand. I have a friend, Morgan Clendenen, who blends her  Viognier with that of Cuilleron.   Another friend used to blend Edna Valley Pinot with Carneros Pinot. The results surprised some French friends of mine. In California one might make a terrific chardonnay blend with fruit from different regions but selling the wine for more than twenty bux would be hard.   In France we see regions of single variety and single vineyards like Burgundy and then we have regions where varieties are blended (Bordeaux and Southern Rhone) and regions where different regions are blended (Champagne). Of course, traditional English bottled Burgundy was a blend of different regions and countries, acc to Andrew Barr, and that was quite popular.

15 Aug 2009 22:02 by Mel Knox

The new winegrowing areas of the new world are still evolving and so the natural choice is to start with single varietal wines. Time may prove some sites don't produce great varietal wine and then the natural progression must be to blend. This evolution will be influenced by market demand and resources available to the producer. We grow wine in the southern most sub region in the world and really dont have a need to consider blending. For us it is about the single vineyard not the single variety.

12 Aug 2009 12:21 by Phil Handford

I am slightly uncomfortable with this effort to tease out rules and principles. It all depends. When I spoke to Eben's a few years back his observation was that continental climates suit varietal wines better, which I thought was interesting. You could also say that warm climate wines are generally less interesting than cool climate wines.Blending is really interesting, and it's a mistake to think that the ultimate expression of wine is a single-vineyard wine. You need to understand terroir to be a good blender, I reckon. And as to Victor's point, I think homogeneous ripening is one of the keys to wine quality, not an obstacle. But we could be talking about degrees here.  

12 Aug 2009 10:11 by Jamie Goode

Couple of ideas that I would love to hear feedback on. I used to for the sake of getting my customers in my wine shop in Minnesota, explain that mono-varietal was like a monochromatic painting and that it's often nice to see the world in more than one color. This worked to get them to try new things, and explore. That said with clonal variation, does this metaphor really hold up?   Question: Does a monovarietal vineyard with many different clones offer up a slightly more "blended character?" Or are the clones chosen more to create similar characteristics, over different soils/micro climates? Thus leading to a homogeneous mix.

12 Aug 2009 09:32 by Ryan Opaz

What is a wine? The obsession with discussing 'varietal vs blend' wines or varietal labelling often reduces a wine to a series of ingredients. It ensures that the perception of many wines (not all) is that they are a matter of reproducing recipes such as: Chardonnay + Viognier + oak = brand X The "New World's obsession with varietal wines" isn't just a quality wine issue, it is a marketing issue. Discussing whether a winemaker should be creating blends or focusing on single vineyard/varietal wines implies that they are influenced not by the quality of the wine, but by how it will be perceived. What the wine trade needs is marketing that addresses the added value of a wine; the benefits rather than the features. This has been achieved by a handful of brands - regions, producers and iconic wines. THEIR varietal blend (or lack of) is not in question or possibly even of interest. It is only those regions or producers who do not have any recognition who need to borrow the value of the varietal brand name. Unfortunately this shortcut, aimed at consumers, is a dead end. Few of the consumers attracted to a wine by the information about the ingredients rather than the source, will bother to explore beyond the varietal label and get to know a producer or region, so there is no long term benefit. Wine makers should continue to try and make the best wine they can, and by all means go on to explain how the wine was made and why, but they should not rely on that explanation to market their wines. There are great virtues in blends because they can be unique, they can be consistent over time and, importantly, they encourage consumers to be curious.

12 Aug 2009 09:29 by Robert McIntosh

When I was chatting to Louisa Rose of Yalumba in June, she said they would really like to do more blends of varieties - especially with some of the newer varieties they are nurturing - but that they are concerned that they and other Australilan producers have created their own straitjacket by mainly sticking to varietal wines during the boom years. Really just what Mel has already said.

12 Aug 2009 09:04 by Julia Harding

I would guess that varietals sell well because your average consumer learns the name of a grape variety that they like and ask for that. Hence 'I'll have a glass of pinot grigio' (wherever it happens to be from) rather than 'I'll have a glass of the viognier/marsanne.' So you can sell a Rioja, but not a tempranillo/grenache/cabernet blend. If those are the market forces at work then that's what you sell, I suppose. It's difficult to see the New World basing most of its output solely on the artistic merit of its wine, somehow.

12 Aug 2009 00:09 by David Stewart

Small correction, Jancis: Eben is becoming as well-respected in Priorat as in his native South Africa! It's just that his amazingly terroir-rich wines are made in such tiny quantities that few people, in Spain or outside Spain, ever get the chance to taste them. But when you do get the chance... what a splendid experience! In our latest (blind) tasting of top Priorats, three of his 2006 wines (Dits del Terra, Les Manyes and Arbossar) placed in the top seven... His Spanish company carries the right name: Terroir Al Limit. On the subject of blending, it's always been my belief that it's more a matter of latitude than of an Old World/New World dichotomy. In cool climate viticulture you can more easily get complexity from varietals, because the smallest terroir/microclimate variations will give you quite different grapes. So you have great riesling in Rheingau or Mosel, great pinot noir in Burgundy, great nebbiolo in the Langhe... Further south, where it's sunny and drier, and fine, uniform ripening is the norm, you had better look for complexity from blends of grapes with different attributes. (Although the odd, great single-varietal does exist, of course.) Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the great example, as you mention. (Curiously, with a blend of 'foreign' grapes that as late as 1820 probably weren't even there - the Spanish grenache, mourvèdre and cinsaut and the northerly syrah.) But let's don't forget that great classic regions such as Bordeaux, Rioja and Chianti have always been blend-oriented. I think that a La Rochelle-Lyon-Venice line more or less marks the frontier between that part of western Europe where blending is the exception and that where it is (or should be, perhaps) the norm. Me, tiny and insignificant a grower as I am, I try to practice what I preach. At my place in hot, arid southeastern Spain we make six red wines - all of them blends, each made from two or three of our six grape varieties. Not that this produces great wine - but at least it makes for more interesting wine.

11 Aug 2009 19:12 by Victor de la Serna

When Jancis made our 2008 Uvaggio Vermentino her wine of the week several linguists asked her if our wines were blends, as that is what Uvaggio means. My response was that  my winemaker partner believes in blending but that the market does not. The market loves single-vineyard, single-varietal wines.We have made wonderful blends of Nebbiolo and Barbera. We have blendend wines from different appellations and been punished with a California designation..the same appellation as Two Buck Chuck..(altho I hear the appellation for some of Fred Franzia's wines will soon be 'Fatal Shore'.) None of these wines sold well but the minute we made wines with appellation and vineyard names sales took off.  We are now content to blend grapes from the same appellation....for now.

11 Aug 2009 17:38 by Mel Knox

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