I was recently hosting a wine tasting event in someone’s home, and pouring a red Bordeaux when someone exclaimed, “Bordeaux is a grape right?”
It wasn’t the worst thing ever said to me at these types of parties but it illustrated something common. While the popularity of blends has been rising fast in the last few years (case in point: Apothic Red), most people know almost nothing about wine blends.
Wine blending is an art in Europe, where it has been around for centuries. The most famous wine blends come from France, with the region of Bordeaux having the most cachet and some of the highest prices.
There are two types of wine blends. The first is a blend of different grapes from the same vintage or year, and the second is a blend from different vintages. Wineries make them to improve the overall profile of the wine by combining varietals that have complimentary characteristics.
Add some Merlot to a Cabernet Sauvignon, and you might add some softness and plummy flavours to balance out the harsher tannins. A winemaker also might want to add aroma, colour or texture to the end product. Ultimately, winemakers make the most complex wines they can with the grapes they have available from their vineyards.
Many wines are blends and we don’t even realize it. In the U.S., a wine can be labelled a single varietal with only 75 per cent of named grape in it. So that bottle of Chardonnay you’re drinking might be 25 per cent other grapes. In most of Europe, you must have 80 per cent of the varietal to call the wine a single grape, which still leaves lots of room to add.
So why would anyone blend wine from different years? In the case of Champagne it is to allow consistency in the bottle. Non-vintage Champagne should taste the same each year, no matter how difficult the harvest might have been. This also applies to the famous Port blends of Portugal. Wineries might have unique styles or flavour profiles, but they want the consumer to have the same experience with each bottle.
By law in Bordeaux, the wine can only contain a combination of five different grapes, of which the two most famous are Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. But that still means the same wine might have different percentages each year as the winemaker tweaks the blend by combining wines from different barrels. Further south in the Rhone Valley, the most famous red is Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It can have as many as 14 grapes in the blend.
Italy has several famous blends. Both Valpolicella and Amarone contain the same grapes but there are only four allowed. Chianti must have three-quarters Sangiovese, but other approved varietals can be added. Not all European blends have centuries of history. In the 1970s, some Italian winemakers decided that they could make better wine in Tuscany, with French varietals, and so the term Super Tuscan was born. These wines can cost hundreds of dollars. Some claim they are better than similar blends from Bordeaux.
The New World has some famous wine blends of its own. The term Meritage was coined in California to name the Bordeaux-style blends that are produced there.
GSM is a well known blend that you’ll find in Australia, France and the U.S. Grenache, Syrah, and Mouvedre are the typical three grapes. Although white wines are blended much less of the time, there are some well known examples. White Bordeaux can be made of three different varietals. Most of us have heard of the California blend Conundrum, which is available here in Halifax. Some winemakers will even blend white and red together. Syrah and Viognier is the most well known combination with the Viognier adding softness and aroma to the blend.
In 2012, Nova Scotia winemakers banded together to form their own appellation and develop a signature wine called Tidal Bay. The grapes have to be 100-per-cent Nova Scotian, but the blend and style varies. Buy a few of these and try together to see which one you like the most.
The under-$25 wine review
In keeping with our blend theme, let’s look at a couple of great-value French blends from the NSLC.
Les Jamelles Chardonnay-Viognier
Pay D’oc France, $18.99, NSLC
Some lovely floral and lemon notes in this Chardonnay/Viognier blend. The wine coats your mouth with an unexpected richness without any cloying effect. Tropical fruit like ripe pineapple and Lychee burst with flavour. A very viscous wine that still has nice acidity and some spice on the finish. A great cold weather white and a well made blend. Pairs well with roast chicken and butter-mashed potatoes. 90/100
La Chasse-Cote du Rhone Prestige France, $19.99, NSLC
This Grenache/Syrah blend is stunning! Lovely warmth without being jammy or overly alcoholic. The opening freshness leads to lots of dark berry fruit from the Syrah and Grenache. Peppery notes add to the character and the alcohol level is only 12.5 per cent! What a beautiful and polished wine. Grab a case, invite some friends over and enjoy with some pulled pork sandwiches made in the slow cooker. 93/100