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An Education in The Art of Blending Wines

An Education in The Art of Blending Wines

From Bordeaux, Rioja, Chianti and Châteauneuf-du-Pape to Port, Sherry and Champagne, there’s one particular trait that these famous and high quality wines all share in common. They’re all the result of being blended in some form or another.

Whether it be different grape varieties, different vineyard areas, different growers, different fermentation methods or even different vintages, it’s the skill of the head winemaker that determines the wine’s ultimate composition and expression.

An Education in The Art of Blending Wines

 

Combining wines from different vintages

Just think for a moment about the basics of wine production. Grapes are grown, harvested and fermented to make wine. We envisage that the fruit comes from a single harvest, gets bottled and then released to the markets for sale for our subsequent enjoyment.

Now that’s true for the vast majority of table wines and the bottles confirm this with the vintage date shown on the label, however there are occasions when producers will blend different vintages together and are actually permitted to do so.

For quality

There’s a growing movement of high profile producers that deliberately do this consistently as they feel it builds greater complexity in the wine which a single vintage can’t achieve. Vega Sicilia (Reserva Especial) and Penfold’s (G3) are two notable examples.

An Education in The Art of Blending Wines - Wine making

For reassurance

Being able to blend vintages is also a useful insurance policy for producers when they experience a particularly bad harvest, last year being a case in point across much of France. More or less universally, for quality wines that have a designated origin, the rules state that in order to show a single vintage on the label, at least 85% of the wine must come from the specified year. If more than 15% of an older vintage is blended in, the vintage must either be removed or, as is the case in Australia, all used vintages have to be shown on the back label.

For style

There are some historic regions where blending different vintages is not only standard practise, but integral to the wines’ style and personality. Most Sherries and tawny Port fit into this category, as indeed does ‘multi-vintage’ Champagne (as producers now refer in preference to the term ‘non-vintage’).

Older vintages, or ‘reserve wines’ are skilfully blended with the most recent vintage in order to give as consistent a ‘house style’ as possible so that customers know what they’re getting whenever they purchase a bottle of their favourite champagne.

Champagne Bernard Remy Brut ‘Carte Blanche’ NV

For example, the illustrious house of Krug has blended over 40% of reserve wines from no less than 12 different vintages in their latest incarnation of Grande Cuvée, their ‘house style’. Our very own Bernard Rémy Carte Blanche Brut not only uses around 30% of reserve wines in this cuvée but it’s also a blend of all three champagne grape varieties Pinot Noir (60%), Chardonnay (35%) and Pinot Meunier (5%). You can enjoy six bottles of these to just one of the Krug too!

Making wines from multiple grower

Co-operative cellars are equally as important as single estates as they allow small-scale grape growers the opportunity to turn their fruit into wine, particularly if they have neither the knowledge nor the inclination, nor even the funding to do it themselves.

All co-ops vary in size, from just a handful of growers to many hundreds. In Tuscany, Le Chiantigiane is a major co-op comprising of around 2,000 growers across the region. Collectively, they represent 2,460 hectares of vineyards, which means most individuals own little more than a couple of acres each.

Even though Chiantigiane is a major producer in its own right, they’ve instigated a strict quality charter that all the individual growers adhere to, and ensures they meet the highest levels of certification.

Chianti, DOCG, Le Chiantigiane

Another benefit is that economies of scale can be more easily achieved and that’s why wines like the Chianti ‘Loggia del Conte’represents such fantastic value for money.

 

A practise carried out in every wine producing country and for good reason as we’re now beginning to understand.

Blending different grape varieties for complexity

In the past, this was often seen as another insurance policy as different grape varieties are susceptible to different issues, be it climatic-related or pest-related. It wasn’t unusual to see ‘field blends’ where literally dozens of different grape varieties were all planted together within the same vineyard, even mixing white and red varieties.

An Education in The Art of Blending Wines - Portugal

As the trend for single varietal wines grew throughout the 20th century, many of these old mixed plots were grubbed up and replaced with individual varietals, however you can still find a smattering of field blends around the world, especially in Spain and Portugal, and there’s been a resurgence of interest in recent years.

One of the most famous field blends in Portugal is the iconic Quinta do Noval Nacional. Even the owners don’t know all the varieties in this tiny plot but that doesn’t deter serious critics and connoisseurs fawning over it!

Similarities and differences between Bordeaux & Rioja

Both Bordeaux and Rioja share many similarities in terms of climate, their wine style and structure and their winemaking philosophy, although they do use different grape varieties and you can certainly taste the difference so far as flavour profile is concerned.

In Rioja, for example, the white wines focus mainly on the indigenous Viura grape (which must make up a minimum of 51% of the blend) but there are now 8 other permitted varieties, including Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc as well as other native grapes. In Bordeaux, the whites can be made from three varieties only. Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle.

Ageing is one of the fundamental character features of Rioja, not only in their red wines but in their whites too. Unlike Bordeaux, there’s always been a leaning towards American oak instead of French oak, especially in the reds, because it imparts different flavours and the barrels are considerably cheaper to buy than French. But things have been changing and there’s now wider use of French oak alongside American, especially among the more quality conscious producers.

Bodegas Luis Cañas, Rioja Blanco Viñas Viejas

Bodegas Luis Cañas are a prime example who make a fabulous Viñas Viejas Rioja Blanco made almost exclusively from old vine Viura with a little Malvasia, and then mature it in new French and American oak barrels for only 4-5 months. It’s a masterclass in the skilful use of oak to add texture and nuance as opposed to dominating the flavour.

The red wines of Bordeaux have set the blueprint for complex tasting and structured wines where the sum is often greater than the individual parts. From the top first growths down to the generic everyday drinking wines, they’re almost exclusively built on blends. The six permitted grape varieties being Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot and the rarely seen Carménère, although the first three are the dominant ones.

Chateau Lamothe-Cissac

Such is the global demand, not only for the region’s best Chateaux but for the appellation generally, that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find genuine value. However, the Cru Bourgeois tier has always been and thankfully still is the ideal place to look.

We’ve been a big fan of the likes of Château Lamothe-Cissac for their consistency across the vintages. They always seem to turn out solid, approachable wines with the perfect balance between complexity and innate drinkability. The blend is primarily based on Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot with a small ‘seasoning’ proportion of Petit Verdot added into the mix.

As we entered the new millennium, wines labelled as blends were often perceived by consumers with a bit of disdain, as if they were somehow impure or inauthentic. Fortunately this view has now softened, especially in an age when information is key, and we want to know exactly what makes up our favourite blended wines that were previously kept anonymous.

Talk to us about your favourite grapes or blends and we’ll happily steer you towards wines that we think will suit your tastes. Call 01756 748855 or email james@wharfsidewines.com.

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