The definition of the verb to blend (to mix smoothly and inseparably together), seems disarmingly simple. How difficult can it be to combine more than one thing together? Ask any married couple, multi-person household, two cats, etc. how easy it is to blend! Blending anything smoothly and inseparably requires instinct, intuition, and inspiration. And in the instance of a wine blend, it is all these things and more.
Wines that are created with more than one grape varietal (blends) have a long and practical history. Hundreds of years ago, vineyards were planted with multiple grape varieties to hedge against the inherent uncertainty of each growing season. In particular, the European wine growing regions were consistently challenged with unpredictable weather patterns. Red grapes are especially susceptible to adverse climate events such as early Autumn rainfall or late Spring frost. In the Bordeaux region, the interplanting of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc provided an insurance policy against adverse weather events. For example, Cabernet Sauvignon will struggle to ripen in a cold year, while both Merlot and Cabernet Franc can reach desired sugar levels with less heat.
Many other European wine regions such as Chianti, Chateauneuf-du-Pape or Rioja have created signature blends to safeguard quality and consistency from each vintage. Over time, as winemaking techniques became more refined and the globalization of wine more prevalent, the blending of wine moved away from the field pick and into the cellar. Today, blended wines run the gamut from strict DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) regulatory parameters to the unbridled creativity of the winemaker. It is within this broad range of wine styles that some knowledge can prove useful to the wine buyer!
Wines that are made from more than one grape variety can be labeled in many different ways, primarily based on the country of origin and historical reference. Claret was the name that the British gave to a very light red wine from Bordeaux. A red Bordeaux wine is strictly defined by the French AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée) rules and can only include these grape varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Petite Verdot, Carmenere and Cabernet Franc. Red Meritage wines are a blend of two or more of the red Bordeaux varieties plus St. Macaire and Gros Verdot. If the blend includes any other grape variety, it is, by definition, not a Meritage. Also, to qualify as a Meritage, no single grape variety can make up more than 90% of the blend. Is anyone confused yet?
Now layer in the rules for DOC/AOC across the European growing regions and suddenly, the world of blended wines becomes vast. There are Super Tuscan wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese, Syrah, Merlot and Petite Verdot. There are Rhône-Style Blends from France’s Rhône region which use up to 15 different grapes to make a variety of red and white wines. Primary grapes include Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault and Viognier. Within the Rhône region, there are sub-regions such as the Côte-Rôtie which features a blend of the fragrant white grape Viognier and the spicy red grape Syrah. Finally, in the US, the term Red Wine Blend has no boundary other than indicating that there is more than one red grape variety in the wine.
Today, the US domestic wine industry has an overwhelming selection of wines from which to choose, in the Red Wine Blend category. Many wine lovers enjoy this category because it focuses more on flavor and texture rather than place and varietal. These wines are styled to be fruit forward with a softer tannin and oak profile. These wines often have more flexibility for food pairings and typically shine with gatherings of family and friends as the style is pleasing to a variety of palates.
To shortcut the necessity of becoming a sommelier, the easiest place to start on your next adventure with the red blend category is to think about what you really enjoy in a red wine. Ask yourself some basic questions that can help frame your preferences. Do you like your coffee served black, dark roast or even espresso? This can indicate an interest in blends that are more robust and based on Cabernet Sauvignon. Do you like citrus flavors or bitter salad greens? This can direct you towards a blend that has a higher acid profile such as wines from either the Southern Rhône or the Beaujolais regions of France. Collect a few flavor preferences based on your likes or dislikes and then go to your nearest retailer or restaurant and communicate your taste profile. Be sure to also state your budget…some of the most sought after and expensive wines in the world are blends!
As in all things wine, a bit of knowledge and research can yield very positive outcomes. If you feel somewhat educated, please take our Red Blend Quiz for a chance to win a prize.