Often misunderstood by the consumer as a technique in winemaking, blending is one of the greatest and most versatile of tools in the oenologist’s, or wine-maker’s, armoury.
The reasons why wines, or grape varieties, are blended are many and differ according to the type of wine, the style, its origins and the climate where the grapes are grown.
Not all wines, of course, are blended, some being the pure expression of a single grape variety. But in general, the greater the quality of the wine, the more there is a need at some stage in the wine-making process, to introduce blending.
One of the principal blending techniques is the blending together of different grape varieties. Each grape variety has different characteristics in terms of acidity, tannin (for reds), body, structure and flavour profile. With blending different grape varieties, each one brings something different in order to create a harmonious finished wine. The majority of champagne, together with most of the top quality sparkling wines of the world – including English – is made from a blend of three different grape varieties - Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Chardonnay gives backbone, Pinot Noir gives body and red-berry fruit character and the Meunier gives fruit and suppleness.
Many of the wines made from blends of different grape varieties have developed over a long period of time, such as in champagne and other areas of France producing top quality wines, such as Bordeaux and the southern Rhone valley. Many of the top red Bordeaux wines are made from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, with sometimes additional small quantities of Petit Verdot and/or Malbec. Each of these varieties gives a different dimension to the finished wine, creating harmony and complexity at the same time. In the southern Rhone, as many as ten different grape varieties may be used in the same wine, but the top three are Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, often known in the trade as a GSM wine. This very successful combination is now also being used for winemaking in other countries around the world, including Australia.
The technique of blending is also used in other circumstances. In champagne, for example, apart from blending different grape varieties, the base wines (before being made sparkling) may be blended from different vineyards in the region and also from different years for non- vintage wines. Each will have subtle differences and the art of the blender is to try to achieve consistency of taste and character year after year, despite the vagaries of the climate in this northerly cool climate area.
Blending may also occur in wines made from a single grape variety, such as Pinot Noir in Burgundy or New Zealand. Wines fermented separately from different plots of the vineyard may be blended, the free-run wine after fermenting may be blended with the press wine and wine matured in oak barrels may be blended with wine matured in stainless steel vats. Such are the choices open to the wine-maker so that he or she may achieve the desired result.
All the above are tried and tested techniques, but increasingly different grape varieties are being blended together, both in the old world and the new, in order to create new and interesting wines with different flavour profiles.
In the majority of cases, this works well and the blend may be an improvement or at the least, an interesting variation on an existing theme. Rosemount Estate in Mclaren Vale in Australia, for example, produce a spicy and aromatic, fruity white from Traminer and Riesling. These varieties work well together, each complementing the other in terms of flavours and aromas.
Richard Esling BSc DipWSET is an experienced wine consultant, agent, writer and educator. An erstwhile wine importer, he runs a wine agency and consultancy company called WineWyse, is founder and principal of the Sussex Wine Academy, chairman of Arundel Wine Society and is an International Wine Judge. Twitter @richardwje. Visit www.winewyse.com.
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