'Where do you keep your red blends?" This is a question anyone in the wine business hears multiple times a day. Red blends are a booming trend these days, as any …
'Where do you keep your red blends?" This is a question anyone in the wine business hears multiple times a day. Red blends are a booming trend these days, as any trip down the grocery store wine aisle will tell you. There are light versions and medium versions and dark versions, many of them with - let's face it - overtly catchy names that sometimes verge on the embarrassingly silly.
But the red blend is not a new invention. Indeed, blending has long been used in many of the oldest and most highly regarded wine regions, and a great number of wines on the market--even those labeled as a single varietal--are blends. Sure, there are some wines that are 100 percent a single type of grape, but grab a bottle of Bordeaux (entry-level to gut-punchingly expensive, it doesn't matter), and you're extremely likely to have a blend in your hand. You may think that bottle of Chianti is all sangiovese, but other indigenous Tuscan grapes like Canaiolo, Colorino, and Ciliegiolo are often blended in, as are international varieties like cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah, since Italian wine law changed to allow their inclusion.
There is certainly something wonderful about single varietal wines, if for no other reason than they allow us to taste a grape in its pure form (well, aside from the influence of various winemaking techniques, but that's for a different article). But blending grapes is an age-old way of achieving balance and complexity in a wine, of amping up certain characteristics, perhaps minimizing unwanted features and generally making a wine different (and better?) than the individual parts added up.
Blends can be made in the vineyard - a so-called field blend, where grapes are grown somewhat higgledy-piggledy, and are thus picked and fermented as a blend - but ideally grape varieties are grown, picked and fermented separately, the blending occurring only when it is time to create the finished product.
Some wineries have set percentages of grapes that they use every vintage, but many adjust percentages depending on the characteristics of the vintage. Thus, blending helps them to achieve the best wine possible every year. Some vintages are better for some grapes than for others, and growing and ripening characteristics of some grapes can help make up for deficits in others. For example, merlot ripens more quickly than cabernet sauvignon, so can be used as an insurance policy against an early frost. Cabernet franc buds at a different time than either cabernet sauvignon or merlot, so it can pick up the slack if either, or both, of those harvests are compromised in some way.
Let's take that bottle of Bordeaux as an example. Depending on what part of the region it's from, the dominant grape is likely to be either cabernet sauvignon (on the left bank of the Gironde estuary) or merlot (on the right bank). But pretty much all Bordeaux wines are some combination of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot and/or malbec. Carmenère is also allowed by law, but very few chateaux use it nowadays. This is the "Bordeaux blend," sometimes called Meritage in California.
The 2014 Château des Graviers Margaux ($58/750ml bottle) hails from the left bank of Bordeaux, and is therefore cabernet sauvignon-dominant at 65 percent. The remainder of the blend is 25 percent merlot, providing the wine with plummy red fruits and taming cabernet's more assertive tannins; 6 percent cabernet franc, which imparts a savory perfume to the wine; 2 percent malbec, lending an inky intensity, and 2 percent petit verdot, which also contributes to color, structure and alcohol content. In a way, we can think of the cabernet sauvignon as the skeleton, the merlot as the flesh and the cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot as the clothes, the hair and the makeup. And they all add up to one very attractive package, indeed.
In the glass, the wine is a dense purple in hue, thanks largely to the influence of malbec and petit verdot. Aromas of black cherry, blueberry and black currant (signature aromas of merlot, malbec and cabernet sauvignon, respectively) are accented by an ethereal perfumy, balsamic note (hello, cabernet franc!). The palate is leathery, with chewy tannins and assertive acidity (great job with the structure, cabernet sauvignon … with a little help from your friend petit verdot, of course), mellowed by rich blackberry and black plum fruits (malbec and merlot for the win!).
It isn't necessary, of course, to be able to pick out the individual contributions of each grape. Indeed, it's probably more fun not to, unless you're an aspiring winemaker. Rather, when we drink a red blend, whether we realize it is one or not, the important thing to hope for is that the finished wine is more than the sum of its parts--more balanced, more complex, more interesting … more delicious.
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