Which is better - a wine made from one grape variety, or a blend?
The neophyte might think instinctively that a 100 per cent 'pure' Cabernet Sauvignon for example would be bound to be better quality than a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon with two or three other grape varieties. In which case the newcomer would be denying himself the pleasure of classed growth bordeaux.
The answer to the question really depends on why the blend is made in the first place. Cabernet Sauvignon grown in a climate as relatively cool and wet as Bordeaux's (pace 2003) tends to be a bit austere on its own, and can benefit greatly from blending with the plumper Merlot grape, the more aromatic Cabernet Franc and, sometimes, the spicy Petit Verdot. These different vine varieties also flower and ripen at different times so growing several of them offers the owner of an estate some protection against the vagaries of the Bordeaux climate.
In California on the other hand, grapes reliably reach much higher levels of ripeness (though there is certainly vintage variation here too). Thus, a carefully made 100 per cent Napa or Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon is much more likely to be truly sumptuous.
The Bordeaux example is a good reason to make a blend. Commercial expediency is a less good one. Labelling regulations in California, for example, require only 75 per cent of the wine to be composed of the variety specified on the label (and in much of Europe the minimum required is only 85 per cent). This means that whenever a variety is in short supply, there is a temptation to add ballast in the form of a cheaper, more plentiful grape or grapes.
This is why the characteristic hot berry aroma of Zinfandel can be found in many an inexpensive Californian Cabernet, why the cheapest Bulgarian Cabernets may be lightened by adding some basic Pamid grapes, and why so many basic Chardonnays seem a bit thin. They will almost certainly have been cut with wine from some thoroughly neutral, but less expensive, variety such as Trebbiano, Ugni Blanc, Colombard or Chenin Blanc (which can be truly wonderful in the Loire but rarely is elsewhere).
If two or more genuinely characterful grape varieties are blended together, and compliment each other, then the result should be more interesting than any single-varietal component. (Note that 'varietal' is an adjective, as in 'varietal wine', one which is named after a grape variety. There is a growing and regrettable tendency to use it as a noun and talk about 'grape varietals' instead of 'grape varieties'. Tut, tut.)
Various blends, other than the famous Bordeaux red blend, are sanctioned by both tradition and some stunning results: Grenache, Syrah/Shiraz and Mourvèdre in the southern Rhône Valley for example; Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay in Champagne and for similar sparkling wines; Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon for Bordeaux-type white wines, dry and sweet; Tempranillo and Garnacha/Grenache in Rioja. More and more wine producers are trying these out hundreds, and often thousands, of miles from their place of origin.
But this article is inspired by a wine made from a much less obvious blend - half and half of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, the prime white wine grapes of Burgundy and the Loire that come from two very different viticultural gene pools and traditionally produce two very different styles of wine. While Chardonnay is smudgy, broad and smoky, Sauvignon Blanc is razor-sharp, tart and aromatic.
South Africans have been blending these two varieties for many a long year and rarely to my mind produce anything better than the individual components. Each is so different from the other than they tend to fight each other.
Blending Chardonnay and 'Sauvignon', usually the widespread Sauvignonasse rather than Sauvignon Blanc, has recently become fashionable in Chile and the trend has already been spotted on the other side of the Andes. But (wild generalisation alert) since most South American Chardonnay and Sauvignon is pretty dull, this is too often a desperate attempt to add a bit of crispness to some rather bland, over-produced Chardonnay. Save us from bland blends.
The blend that I find myself raving about currently comes from a rather humble part of France vinously speaking, Gascony, where Vins de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne tend to be light wines useful for using up the grapes that are surplus to requirements for distilling into armagnac. But Yves Grassa's Côté Tariquet Chardonnay/Sauvignon 2002 from Domaine Tariquet is absolutely delicious and like neither of its components - perhaps partly because they were macerated and fermented together rather than separately.
Rather than tasting specifically like either Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, it has the same sort of tang, refreshment value and lightness of touch as a top quality white from south-west France - whether it be Bergerac's Moulin des Dames or a refined Jurançon. There is so much charming ripe fruit and such a delicate florality about it that I think it is probably best drunk as a please-all aperitif rather than with a rabbit terrine, as advised on the producer's own website. The alcohol level is 12 per cent, low nowadays. I suspect that this essence of summer will be at its best for the next few months but no longer.
The wine is available widely (see WineSearcher and www.tariquet.com) and sells for about 8 euros in France, 11 dollars in the US, 18 Canadian dollars in Quebec. In the UK wine lovers can find it at £6.99 as Domaine Caillaubert 2002 from Majestic or as Les Fleurs 2002 from Waitrose stores (Waitrose Direct on 0800 188881 and at www.waitrose.com). Stockists within France on www.tariquet.com.
Another 50:50 blend that has set my heart beating recently also comes from a category that too rarely does: a Rhônish red from Australia. D'Arry's Original Shiraz/Grenache 2001 McLaren Vale is a direct answer to southern French red and just one of a vast range of full-throttle reds from the enterprising McLaren Vale producer d'Arenberg, but it really hits the spot for both current and future drinking. So much Australian Shiraz can suffer the Bordeaux Cabernet problem of being just a bit too tannic, tough and hollow for its own good. This blend with rich, spicy and presumably extremely ripe Grenache (the wine's average alcohol level is a massive 15 per cent) is extremely harmonious and with its dead leaf and red berry character takes us nicely into autumn.
This is the blend that was known as d'Arry's Original Burgundy until those awkward Frenchmen objected. I am told that its predecessors easily continued to develop for a decade, so is exceptionally good value. It is relatively easy to find (see WineSearcher), selling for well under $20 in the US and the current offer price at Oddbins brings it down from £8.49 to £7.22 if any two bottles from their current New World Wonders offer are bought - and a snip-like £6.79 if you buy a total of a dozen assorted bottles.