Blended Wines – Why and How?
A fascinating article in WineMakerMag about Wine Blending Partners written by Chik Brenneman, former winemaker for the UC-Davis Dept. of Viticulture and Enology, caught my attention because there are so many blended wines in Texas, and also in the rest of the wine world, for that matter. As pointed out in the referenced article, “Blending accomplishes several goals in winemaking . . . . improve flavor, mouthfeel, cover a defect, balance the chemical profile, adjust the alcohol content, emulate a commercial wine you enjoy or simply for product consistency.” Hidden in these reasons is what I like to call “insurance in the vineyard.” Certain grape varieties will do better (or worse) depending on vintage conditions (weather) and having several varieties of grapes planted can really help the winemaker produce a much better wine by blending based on qualities of the various components available. And, making a better wine is the key point, right?
Chik Brenneman reminds the reader of some important blended wines around the world, such as the famous wines of Bordeaux that are almost always blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, often with Petit Verdot and sometimes small amounts of Malbec and Carmenere. The amazing wines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape in France’s Rhône Valley are typically blends with several of the 13 allowed grape varieties, such as Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault, etc. Spain offers blends using key grapes like Tempranillo and Garnacha (Grenache) that include varieties like Graciano, Monastrell (Mourvèdre), and Cariñena (Carignan). And, in Italy, there has been a revolution of sorts over the past 50 years to include international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc in blends with traditional grapes like Sangiovese and Montepulciano.
So, what does all this have to do with Texas? Based on climate types in the different wine-growing regions, growers typically select grape varieties that will perform better in their location. Grapes that grow well in hot, dry areas tend not to do well in more wet, humid areas, like East Texas or the Gulf Coast regions. Grapes that need cooler conditions, especially with lower night-time temperatures, will perform better on the Texas High Plains than further south and east in the state. And, soil types, average rainfall, and other conditions in Texas wine-growing regions significantly influence the grapes planted and the wines made from them.
The Brenneman article introduces information on blending formulas related to adjusting alcohol, sweetness, acidity, and other compositional attributes. However, the topic here is all about blending grape varieties to produce the best tasting wine possible. Here are some examples from 4.0 Cellars owner/partners to illustrate these points.
Kim McPherson has long championed grape varieties that grow well in hot, arid regions around the Mediterranean Sea, primarily from southern France and eastern Spain. McPherson Cellars produces several delicious blended red wines, including EVS Windblown and Les Copains Red based on varieties from the Rhône Valley of southern France, and La Herencia, a tribute blend based Spanish varieties that do well in the Lone Star State. La Herencia 2018 is blended from Tempranillo 85%, Mourvèdre 5%, Carignan 5%; and Syrah 5%, sourced from Timmons Estate & Lahey Vineyards, Brownfield, TX, Terry County. Aged in French oak barrels (20% new) for 11 months, this wine shows aromas & flavors of dark cherry, plum, and baking spices with notes of soft leather and freshly plowed soil followed by a rich, long finish with silky tannins.
Based on his extensive experience in blending wines, Chik Brenneman suggests the following options for Tempranillo (>50%) – Grenache (Garnacha), Carignan (Cariñena), Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon as minor components of the blend. This shows very good agreement with what Kim McPherson used for La Herencia 2018.
Jim Evans, winemaker at Lost Oak Winery, also has extensive experience in blending wines. A recent example was the Meritage 2017 bottling, a Bordeaux-style wine blended from Cabernet Sauvignon 37%, Diamante Doble Vyd, Tokio, TX; Merlot 28%, Bingham Family Vyds, Meadow, TX; Cabernet Franc 14% & Malbec 14%, Burning Daylight Vyds, Rendon, TX; and Petit Verdot 7%, Sprayberry Vyds, Midland, TX. This terrific blend of all five major Bordeaux grapes was aged 19 months in a mix of American and French oak barrels to offer earthy, blackberry aromas; cherry fruit, creamy butterscotch, and sweet tobacco flavors, plus a complex, robust structure that finishes with silky tannins.
Chik Brenneman suggests the following options for a Bordeaux-style blend with Cabernet Sauvignon (>50%) – Merlot, Malbec, and Cabernet Franc as minor components of the blend. Right on track with Jim Evans!
A final example comes from Brennan Vineyards, the terrific Winemaker’s Choice blend created by winemaker Todd Webster. Todd builds these non-vintage blends each year from a mix of his favorite varieties in the Brennan barrel program. The delicious Volume 6 (VI) blend released in the 4.0 Cellars September wine club allocation was made from Cabernet Franc 42% (2018), Blackwater Draw Vyd, Brownfield, TX, Terry County; Cabernet Sauvignon 18% (2018), Newburg Vyd, Comanche County, TX; Carmenere 22% (2018) and Graciano 18% (2019), Lahey Vyds, Brownfield, TX, Terry County. The 2018 wines were aged 18 months in a mix of new and used American and French oak barrels to give a deep, dark, rich wine with aromas of cherry, raspberry, & red currant with notes of eucalyptus, rosemary, jalapeno skin, wet soil, & tobacco; full-bodied with flavors of dark cherry, plum, & blackberry pie, plus notes of campfire smoke, leather, & pipe tobacco; and a lush mouth-feel with well-structured, lingering finish.
Chik Brenneman suggests Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Malbec as blending partners for Cabernet Franc. Since Carmenere is a close “cousin” to Merlot, Todd’s W6 matches nicely while the young Graciano contributes a special spice to the blend.
Even though there are patterns, suggestions, and recommendations for making blends, it really boils down to the winemaker using his/her own palate to find the aromas, flavors, texture, and structure preferred in a wine bottled under their winery’s label.