The Blend Trend… the next revolution in fine 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
core 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
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.
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
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
winery 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.
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;
(Latin “Essence” and “Sun”) Signature Bordeaux-style Blend: Columbia
Valley; Merlot, Cab, Cab Franc, Malbec;
Rhône-style Blend: Yakima Valley;
Grenache, and Syrah;
Tuttorosso (Italian –“All
Red”) Super Tuscan-style Blend: Yakima Valley; Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon,
(Latin-“Golden Lady”) Rhône-style White Blend: Yakima Valley; Roussanne, Riesling,
“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
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
Malbec plays a slightly smaller, but major, role in Ray Sandidge's 2002 C.R.
Sandidge TRI * Umph. A quadruple medal winner at
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."
Carmenère Bordeaux grape
has since been abandoned in France. Thanks in large part to Mark Colvin,
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
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 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
Sawtooth Winery and Parma Ridge
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") is 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
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.
Here and there in old-time European vineyards, particularly in
and parts of France, it was - and occasionally still is - the
plant different grape varieties together in the same vineyard,
harvesting them all together and making wine from this mixed
bounty. European immigrants brought
practice to the New World, particularly in California where the
the wine industry are strongly Italian. Zinfandel and Petite Sirah
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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Copyright © 2006 - 2012 Susan R. O'Hara. All rights reserved.
August 10, 2012