What do you mean “blended”?

Another question that has been inspired by the many wine tourist friends that I’ve met over the years is about blended wines. I worked at a winery that offered a beautifully constructed premium blended wine that a customer vocally poo-pooed before even tasting it.

“None for me! I don’t like blended wines at all. I much prefer the single varietals,” said the customer.

“What wines do you normally like to drink?” I asked.

“Oh, I love Bordeaux, Rhones, and Chiantis mostly,” was the reply.

*facepalm*

I wish I was making this up but alas, I am not. There was nothing I could do but “Uh-huh” and nod approvingly. A certain amount of tact is involved in working in a wine shop and I was not going to bother to explain that all of the wines they told me were actually blended wines. Bordeaux wines can be made with 9 grape varieties (6 red, 3 white), Rhone wines with a few (4 in the north, upwards of 27 in the south), and Chianti’s (based on Sangiovese but with a bunch more). Suffice it to say that blended wines may be a bit confusing even to some experienced wine lovers.

What is a “blended” wine?

IMG_0811The Oxford Companion to Wine defines a blend as:

Any product of blending but specifically a wine deliberately made from more than one grape variety rather than a single varietal (which may contain only a small proportion of other varieties).”

Blended wines are made with more than one different grape variety. Different grape varieties have different flavours and textures so blending the varieties together in different ways can enhance a wine beyond what the single varieties could have accomplished on their own. In short, the finished wine should be better than the individual wines were on their own. If that wasn’t the case, they should never have been blended. Wines are generally blended with others of the same colour although that isn’t always the case. Shiraz (a red grape) sometimes has a little bit of Viognier (a white) blended in during fermentation which, bizarrely enough, makes the wine darker. It also makes it more aromatic which is the reason Viognier is used in the first place.

In addition to this, I also extend the idea of blended wines to include wines that have been made using more than one vineyard source, although this might be a little confusing because it’s very hard to tell by taste. In my mind a Merlot from [yellow tail] may be made with only one grape variety (Merlot in this case) but because the Merlot comes from perhaps hundreds of vineyard sources, it dilutes any trace of terroir (or any possibility of unique wine flavours) from the finished product. Of course, that’s exactly the point – to create a non-invasive, innocuous, and widely appealing wine with no sharp edges. Because it’s a deliberate, human-initiated activity, I consider it to be a blended wine as well. A lot of BC wines are made this way but on a much smaller scale than the [yellow tail] example above. Unless it is stated as a single vineyard, most wines will very likely come from 2 to 4 different vineyards.

Blended wine is cheap wine

Well, not necessarily. There are still wineries in BC that produce a low-cost base-line blend using the tailings of batches of wines that were used elsewhere or that didn’t measure up in quality.  These wines will be the least expensive bottle in their portfolio and honestly, there is nothing wrong with that in my opinion. The alternative is that it is sold off at a reduced price to another winery where it will be blended away into something else or worse, that it is simply wasted and poured down the drain.

Sometimes these wines can be an accessible and inexpensive option to start learning about wine. For me, Gray Monk’s Latitude 50 was always on my radar as an early wine lover. Road 13’s Honest John’s series and The Cellarhand from Black Hills are other modern takes on this same style.

IMG_0810Many blended wines in BC are climbing higher up the portfolio’s quality ladder. My theory is that wine makers are getting more confident with their skills and are starting to put more thought into making a better wine and not just accepting what nature throws their way. Perhaps the Pinot Gris was a little flabby last year? Maybe adding a little Pinot Blanc will brighten it up? Adding a little Chard might round it out a little. There’s all kinds of qualities in wine that can be tinkered with simply by combining wines from different grape varieties. Wine makers in BC are getting better and more confident at crafting their blends. Winery sales and marketing staff have also gotten behind the blended wines as well, which is critical if a style is going to be successful in the marketplace.

For me personally, I love seeing what a winery can do and the blended wines are a great indicator of their potential.

Blended wine is not as fruity

This came from a customer’s comment sometime last year and has stuck with me ever since. I wouldn’t say that blended wines aren’t as “fruity” as single varieties but that perhaps they are simply not as predictable. It’s hard to tell what to expect from a wine by looking at the name on the label. Seeing “Pinot Noir” on the label tells you a lot. For BC wine in means that it’s going to be a light to medium red wine without a lot of tannins and some bright cherry flavours. Seeing “Felicidade”, “2Bench”,  or “Autumn Gold” on the label means nothing unless you’ve previously tried the wine.

Being less predictable also makes the wines a little more challenging. Single variety wines are easy to figure out if you’ve tasted enough of them and know that you like a particular one. It’s an accessible way to get into wine and learn about it. I remember being faced with a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon and a bottle of Cru Bourgeois Haut-Medoc and choosing the Cabernet Sauvignon because I’d had a few of them before, liked them all, and bought the Cabernet Sauvignon because I thought that I would like it better than whatever the other one was. Of course, the other one was also made of Cabernet Sauvignon (mostly) but because that wasn’t on the label, it didn’t register with me. My loss.

Blended wine is in fashion

IMG_0809Well, it is right now. Or maybe it was? Fashion changes quickly in everything although its difficult to predict and, in the world of wine, is extremely slow to adapt. There’s a big time lag between starting a wine and getting it to market. Wine tastes also change much more slowly than tastes in music, shoes, or handbags. (Uh, so I’ve heard. I’ve read about it somewhere…) Pinot Gris was the hot variety in BC when I first moved to the Okanagan 7 years ago. Blended wines are moving up in the BC wine world and leading the charge for high quality is the blend known as “Meritage”.

Meritage (pronounced “meri-tij” not “meri-tawj” – it rhymes with “heritage”) is a way of indicating that the wine was made using the same grape varieties allowed in Bordeaux. (Technically for a winery to use the word “meritage”, they must belong to the Meritage Alliance, an American organization of which wineries can become a member and therefore be able to legally use the name “Meritage”. However in practice, it has become a generic term to denote a style of wine that is like a Bordeaux.) The earliest prestige or trophy bottles in BC wine’s history were all meritages; Oculus (first vintage ’95), Pinnacle (’97), Nota Bene (’99), and Osoyoos Larose (’01). It was as if BC wine had to prove to the world that we could make a serious meritage. Our current generation of the industry came about at the height of “Parkerization”, when rich, extracted styles of wines were the ones that gained the most attention and were considered to be the most prestigious. Thankfully that era has past but the desire to craft a high quality, complex blend will hopefully never go out of style.

If you blend it…

So the moral of the story is this: Be not afraid of wines not named Cabernet. Single varieties are good, for sure, but there’s a whole world of creativity out there for you to try. Instead of Merlot, Chardonnay, and Pinot Gris or Pinot Noir, look for Character, Corner Stone, Fossil Fuels, and Freud’s Ego. A lot of the blends will also have the varieties listed on the back label just in case you wanted to start with a wine that has varieties that you know you like.

There’s lots of great blended wine out there to discover. Challenge your taste buds and enjoy the wine adventure. Cheers from wine country!

~Luke