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ARCHIVED FEATURE

The Blend Trend… the next revolution in fine wines?

       Wines blended from several different varietals are the norm in Europe.  Here in the New World we do not have the benefits that come with age-old wine regions and vineyards, synonymous with a Brian Carter Cellars logocore of varietals, on which reputations have been built; winemaking in North America got its start emphasizing single varietal wines...Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc. 

       Over the past several Pacific Northwest vintages, however, the observant visitor to our many wine regions and wine shops has, no doubt, noticed the increased availability of blended, high-end wines... Bordeaux-style and Rhone-style blends (both red and white), Super Tuscan-style blends and many other red and white proprietary blends that allow winemakers to balance the structure, flavors and acidity of their wines.  We are learning which varietals grow best in our regions and which combine well for more complex and interesting wines.

       Blended wines are not a new phenomenon in the Pacific Northwest, of course; they have been available for quite some time, usually in the form of table wines at the bottom of the price scale.  Today's blend trend is evidenced in the premium wine lists of wineries, restaurants and wine shops throughout the region.


“There is a subtle, mysterious quality about blends. They tend to be much more complex and interesting when assembled properly, and in my mind, they provide the most complete wine experience whether enjoyed on their own or with food.” 

Mark Colvin, Colvin Vineyards, Walla Walla Valley       


       Wine as art reaches the apex of its potential, agree many winemakers, when its creation allows the free hand of the winemaker to blend multiple wine-grape varietals from selected vineyards each vintage.  Vintages vary more from year to year in the Pacific Northwest than in many other North American winegrowing regions; winemakers here vary percentages of each varietal every year in their blended wines to compensate for vintage influences on vineyard fruit.  In their annual quest to find the “perfect” balance of flavors, acid levels and structure in their wines, winemakers vary the combination and percentages of grape varietals to create their final, nuanced blends.

 

       Captivated by the synergism of blending wines, renowned Washington winemaker, wine consultant and winery designer Brian Carter organized Brian Carter Cellars as a boutique artisan Brian Carter of Brian Carter Cellarswinery in the spring of 2005, the first in Washington to focus exclusively on an array of hand-crafted European-style blended wines.  General manager Mike Stevens recently announced plans for a Woodinville-area tasting room set to open the end May of 2006.

       “I am excited about making European-style blended wines,” says Carter. “Under the Brian Carter label, I will be able to concentrate on my passion for wines of complexity, while showcasing the terroir of Washington. With our plans to open a winery in Woodinville, I can share with visitors the art and essence of making and blending great wines.”

       Brian Carter Cellars currently produces five core blended wines including two Bordeaux-style blends, a Rhône-style blend, a Super Tuscan-style blend and a white blend:

L’Etalon (French-“The Stallion”) Bordeaux-style Blend: Yakima Valley; Cabernet, Merlot, Cab Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot;
Solesce (Latin “Essence” and “Sun”) Signature Bordeaux-style Blend: Columbia Valley; Merlot, Cab, Cab Franc, Malbec;
Byzance (French-“Luxurious”) Southern Rhône-style Blend: Yakima Valley; Grenache, and Syrah;
Tuttorosso
(Italian –“All Red”) Super Tuscan-style Blend: Yakima Valley; Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah;
Oriana (Latin-“Golden Lady”) Rhône-style White Blend: Yakima Valley; Roussanne, Riesling, and Viognier.

       “This is a fantastic time to be part of Washington winemaking," says Carter.  "The next revolution in fine wine is in the increased interest in blended wines in this country. We have an excellent selection of fruit available that allows a winemaker to produce extraordinary quality blended wines.  By handcrafting each particular blend, I am able to bring forth the inherent beauty of the fruit, the unique qualities of the terroir, and fulfill my vision of a superbly balanced wines.”


 Bordeaux-type blends... variations on a theme

       The "royal grapes" which comprise the finest Bordeaux's in the world also grow well in the warmer wine regions of the Pacific Northwest.  Probably the most common blend combines varying percentages of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, depending on winemaker styles and vintage influences.  An A-to-Z list probably could be put together showing Pacific Northwest wineries that produce such blends.  When additional varietals of the Bordeaux type grapes are included in a blend, the results are usually a more complex wine.

       Knowing the percentages of each varietal in a blend can provide important information about what the consumer can expect, if a rudimentary knowledge of varietal flavor profiles is cultivated. Winemakers may choose from traditional Bordeaux varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec, as well as a few others of less-known status.

       Winemaker John Haw of Maryhill Winery, near the Stonehenge memorial along the Washington side of the Columbia River, chose to lead with 40% Malbec (with its deeply aromatic and intense character) in his 2003 Serendipity blend.  Bordeaux type blends that include Malbec, except in Argentina, generally contain only a small percentage of this classic grape; this Proprietor's Reserve blended wine may be one of a kind with its Malbec supported by 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Franc.  The American Wine Society gave it a gold medal in December of 2005.

       Malbec plays a slightly smaller, but major, role in Ray Sandidge's 2002 C.R. Sandidge TRI * Umph.  A quadruple medal winner at the 2006 Jerry D. Mead New World International Wine Competition, this elegant red blend contains 26% Malbec along with 64% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Merlot.  Renowned wine writer Janice Robinson referred to Ray Sandidge as one of Washington's Rising Stars in 2000; others suggest Sandidge has a "gift for blending." 

      The once-prized Carmenère Bordeaux grape has since been abandoned in France. Thanks in large part to Mark Colvin, owner and winemaker of Colvin Vineyards, it has found a new home in the Walla Walla Valley.  Reviving the Bordeaux varietal allows Colvin not only to produce the region's only straight Carmenère varietal wine, but also to step up the complexity of his blended wines.  Colvin wines that include some amount of the grape are distinct from the usual Bordeaux-type blend.  Colvin centers his winemaking passions on Cabernet Sauvignon and complex blends created by adding other Bordeaux grapes including Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot, Malbec and, of course, Carmenère.

       “There is a subtle, mysterious quality about blends," says Mark Colvin. "They tend to be much more complex and interesting when assembled properly, and in my mind, they provide the most complete wine experience whether enjoyed on their own or with food.”

Less conventional blended wines

       Over the centuries, European wine regions have become synonymous with specific varietals traditionally grown there.  Winemakers must use those varietals, if their labels bare that region's name.  Grape growing in Pacific Northwest wine regions is in its infancy, and experimental vineyards continue to be planted to determine which varietals will flourish.  Use of a region's name on a label promises only the origin of the grapes, not specific varietals.  With many varietals grown in each wine region, winemakers can experiment with unconventional blends of multiple varieties.

Gus Janeway - winemaker & owner of Velocity Cellars in Southern Oregon wine country       Gus Janeway uses this freedom to produce unusual blends for his Velocity Wine Cellars from grapes grown in the Southern Oregon appellation.  His Velocity wines are unusual only in the fresh ideas they bring to the question of which wines should be combined.  Characterized by unconventional blends, Velocity wines are balanced, elegant and nimble partners for the seasonal fresh food of the Pacific Northwest.  With several vintages of his Velocity and Velo red blends behind him, Janeway has begun to win awards for his distinctive wines;  at last year's World of Wine Fest, his 2003 Velocity earned a Gold Medal in the Best Red Blend category.   This velvety red blend is Velocity Cellars' flagship wine and is based on the deeply aromatic and intense Malbec grape, supported by an alchemy of traditional Bordelaise varietals, spiced by a small percentage of Syrah. The actual blend varies with the vintage.

       In one of Washington's newest appellations, Horse Heaven Hills, Alexandria Nicole Cellars also uses Syrah in its otherwise Bordeaux-type blend in its proprietary wine Destiny Ridge Vineyard Quarry Butte.  Quarry Butte earned 90 Points from Wine and Spirits magazine for its elegant expression of five varietals grown in the unique terroir of Alexandria Nicole's Destiny Ridge Vineyard.  Barrel aged in both French and American Oak barrels for 16 months, this blend of 56% Cabernet Sauvignon, 34% Merlot, 4% Syrah, 3% Cabernet Franc, and 3% Malbec is backed by a balanced structure and silky smooth finish.

       Alexandria Nicole Cellars also earned 91 Points in Wine and Spirits magazine for its Destiny Ridge Vineyard Shepherd's Mark, a white blend of Roussanne (70%), Viognier and Marsanne.

       Any discussion of Less Conventional Blended Wines would be remiss if it did not include the wines of Wade Wolfe, winemaker and co-owner of Thurston Wolfe Winery in Prosser, Washington.  Wolfe is known for his love of blending unusual varieties to create table wines unique to Thurston Wolfe and Washington State. 

       Consider the Dr. Wolfe's Family Red, a proprietary blend that, in the 2004 vintage, includes 62% Primativo (an Italian clone of Zinfandel), 16% Petite Sirah and 16% Lemberger.  Wolfe's white blend, Thurston Wolfe's PGV,  is blend of Pinot Gris and Viognier.  His 2005 PGV is comprised of 70% Viognier and 30% Pinot Gris.

       These unusual Thurston Wolfe blends are not the product of novice experimentation.  Dr. Wade Wolfe is a true veteran of Washington's wine industry.  With degrees in viticulture and biochemistry, and a PhD in plant genetics from the University of California at Davis, Wolfe chose Washington over California in 1978 when he came to the more pioneering wine region of the two, and accepted a position with Chateau Ste. Michelle as technical viticulturalist, and in 1981 as director of vineyards.  By the time he left Ste. Michelle in 1985 to open his own vineyard-consulting business and take over winemaking duties at Hyatt Vineyards, Wolfe had a comprehensive knowledge of where specific grape varieties grew best in eastern Washington and where plantings of alternative red-grape varieties might succeed. In 1991 he accepted a position as general manager for production at Hogue Cellars in the eastern end of the Yakima Valley, and in 1996, relocated his family, as well as their winery and tasting room to a new facility in the Prosser Business Park, just one block from Hogue Cellars.  It was in 2004 that Wolfe left his position at Hogue to dedicate all his time to Thurston Wolfe and planning the construction of a new winery in the new Benton County Business Park in Prosser.  The debut of the new Thurston Wolfe winery occurred during the Yakima Valley's Wine and Chocolate event in February of 2006.

       One of the most unusual combinations of varietals is found in Oregon’s Penner-Ash Wine Cellars' Rubeo blend of Pinot noir and Syrah.  Lynn Penner-Ash and her husband, Ron, first compiled the blend from young vines of a Pinot noir they felt wasn’t yet ready for their reserve bottling.  The Syrah was sourced from southern Oregon’s Del Rio vineyard.

       The grapes form a kind of study in contrasts with Pinot’s flavor profile known for its delicate, subtle tastes, and it is rarely blended. Syrah is brawny and versatile, with deep flavors.  Repeated tastings of the blend were required to find the right balance for the more forceful grape; about one-quarter of the final 2002 Rubeo blend is Syrah.

       Two of Idaho's wineries have begun producing unusual blends - Sawtooth Winery and Parma Ridge (now closed) located in the Snake River Valley.  Brad Pintler, winemaker and general manager of Sawtooth, is definitely in the right place, as manager of Skyline Vineyards, the relatively new and largest vineyard planting in the Snake River Valley.  He is able to select from its wide variety of grapes for blended wines.  His Skyline Red was first produced with the 2003 vintage which combines the unlikely mix of 47% Syrah, 47% Cabernet, 2% Tempranillo, 2% Primativo and 2% Merlot.  Comparing the 2003 blend with the recently released 2004 suggests Pintler may be tinkering with the Skyline Red formula.  His 2004 blend is a combination of 40% Syrah, 40% Cabernet, 3% Tempranillo and 10% Merlot.

       Parma Ridge Melange des Trois (French for "mixture of three") was a unique blend of three varietal grapes, all grown in Idaho. The blend consists of 1/3 Cabernet Sauvignon, 1/3 Merlot and 1/3 Zinfandel.

       Such blending projects rely heavily on winemakers’ skills.  Traditional European blends have been refined over centuries; though new-fangled combos generally follow similar blending principles to hone a precise mix, successful blends might fail miserably in less skilled hands.

 


"Field Blending"

       Here and there in old-time European vineyards, particularly in Chianti and parts of France, it was - and occasionally still is - the custom to plant different grape varieties together in the same vineyard,
harvesting them all together and making wine from this mixed bounty.  European immigrants brought this practice to the New World, particularly in California where the roots of the wine industry are strongly Italian.  Zinfandel and Petite Sirah made natural vineyard companions, along with Carignan and a few other varieties - some of which remain inter-planted to this day.

       Field blending is uncommon in modern vineyards for several reasons, not the least of which is the varying ripening time required by different grapes.

       One remnant of this old-world practice can be found in Kestrel View Vineyards, home to some of the oldest Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec vines in Washington state.  A few vines of Malbec were inter-planted with Cabernet Sauvignon vines more than 30 years ago.  All grapes in this old-vines block are harvested together in a field-blend for Kestrel Vintners Old Vines Cabernet.  A grower in Idaho's Snake River Valley refers to Malbec as "the magic ingredient" of many fine blended wines, and Kestrel's Old Vine Cabernet Sauvignon certainly validates the concept, even though the portion of Malbec in the wine is very small.


        During your next wine country trip, be sure to try a few red or white blends and enjoy the special synergies of various grapes working together to make something magically delicious.  Watch for these wines in your local wine shops, too.

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Last revised:  January 07, 2014