Red blends are gaining popularity as winemakers and consumers alike look for creative new combinations of innovative varietals.
By Michelle Franzen Martin
The concept of blending red wines dates back hundreds of years, according to Ryan McLoughlin, Sea Island’s head sommelier, to a time when 18th-century French winemakers began blending grape varietals in order to make their wines more balanced and pleasant. It was the ideal solution for the years when weather conditions yielded less than perfect grapes for one varietal or another, as blending them resulted in a superior product—the most famous of which is Bordeaux-style wines.
This renowned French wine, a blend of no more than five grapes grown in the region of the same name, has been served at American tables for years. And, although companies in the U.S. have created their own red blends for decades, the process has become a more artistic one in recent years as demand has skyrocketed. Blends have gained popularity among wine enthusiasts, who describe them as more interesting than single varietals, and a great way to experiment with and try new wines.
“The wine public in the U.S. is quickly gaining a much better understanding of wines, winemaking, how to taste and enjoy wines and how to purchase wines,” says Michael Westrick, a winemaker for Notre Vue Estate Winery & Vineyards in California. “They are beginning to appreciate the art of the blend and what blending can do to develop complexity in wines.”
Understanding Red Varietals
In the past, many Americans often shunned red blends, as they were viewed as cheaper or less complex than single varietals. What they’re now discovering is that, much of the time, it is actually the opposite.
“It is becoming OK to drink a non-varietal wine, and people are beginning to understand that these blended wines are not lesser wines,” says Westrick, a former food microbiologist who now creates blends of his own at Notre Vue Estate. “People are appreciating that good varietal wines can come together in a blend in a synergistic fashion—the blend being a much stronger wine than any of its [individual] parts.”
To best explain this, it’s helpful to go back to red Bordeaux, which is comprised of different amounts of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot grapes. Most often, Bordeaux doesn’t blend all five grapes at once; sometimes, for instance, it’s only a blend of two or three.
The Rhône region of France is also known for its blends, but it offers a completely different flavor profile, using an entirely unique selection of grapes. Rhône wines most often consist of varietals like grenache, mourvèdre and syrah.
“Grenache and syrah are perfect dancing partners,” says Keith Wallace, a sommelier and founder of the Wine School of Philadelphia. “The former has a low acidity and tends to … oxidize, but it has awesome flavors of dark fruit and herbs. Syrah has [a] higher acidity and can be very reductive. Its flavors veer toward meat and mineral. They fit together like a puzzle.”
Yet, Wallace says that’s just one of the reasons for blending. “Some years are going to be really great for merlot, and others are going to be better for cabernet,” he explains. “It’s also true that we don’t just blend different grapes, but the same grape from different places. Some parts of a vineyard may not perform as well as others, so we will blend lots to make sure the wine is the best possible experience for the customer.”
As a rule of thumb, cabernet sauvignon tends to have great depth and richness. It offers notes of ripe, dark fruit, such as dark berries and currants, unlike merlot, which pulls the flavor of more lush fruits like cherries and plums. Cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot, which all have medium intensity, are used to fill in places in the blend that require more flavor or a different mouthfeel. Blending these varietals gives the wine a much greater balance.
Wallace also says that, in the years when some grapes do not turn out as wonderful as the winemakers were expecting, it doesn’t mean that finished product is not good. Rather, it goes to show how much harder the creators work during those years, both in the vineyard and at the sorting table, to produce a stellar bottle of wine.
A Look Back
Homegrown red wine blends are not entirely new to the United States. The earliest plantings in the 19th and 20th centuries were field blends, using grapes like mission, mataro and zinfandel, McLoughlin says. “These grapes were co-planted and thus, often co-harvested and fermented, creating what we now call field blends,” he explains.
But then, Prohibition struck, and these practices were forgotten—at least for a while. In the 1970s, U.S. winemakers began experimenting with Bordeaux-style red blends that became known stateside as Meritage blends, a term McLoughlin says derived from the combination of the words “marriage” and “heritage,” a nod to the old-world style of wine it was modeled after.
Still, a stigma remained for years about red blends; American consumers preferred single varietals. But what many wine drinkers did not realize was that a bottle labeled cabernet sauvignon likely contained small amounts of other varietals as well. Currently, in most of the United States, only 75 percent has to come from the labeled grape variety, while the remaining 25 percent can be a mixture of other varietals. (However, these percentages are a little different for wines from American Viticultural Areas like Napa Valley in California.)
Once word spread that these beloved, single-varietal bottles also included other types of grapes, and wine connoisseurs recognized the well-balanced flavor profiles of the more artistic red blends, their popularity naturally increased. Now, they are a big part of the wine industry, and appeal to wine drinkers of all sorts.
“My favorite red wine blends are those that offer a bold richness, intense color and concentration of flavor, fabulous complexity … [and] a nice reflection of the locale or terroir where the grapes were grown,” Westrick notes. “And it has to be a food-friendly wine, meaning that the structure and acidity of the wine … complement the food with which it is paired. That is not to say it shouldn’t be able to stand on its own, as it must be able to that as well.”
Tips for Tasting
Another aspect that makes red blends so popular is how varied they are, making them the perfect option for wine tastings. There’s always excitement in the air when it comes to trying a new blend because each winemaker’s creation tells its own story. Whether it’s an Old World blend from the Bordeaux or Rhône regions of France, or a New World creation from the United States, Chile or New Zealand, each blend offers a flavor profile all its own.
Sea Island offers a wide variety of red blends on the property, giving members and guests the opportunity to try something new every time they visit. “Probably the most notable is our collection of Bordeaux [wines],” McLoughlin says. “We have wine from the top château[s], or First Growths, all the way down to what we call ‘petite château,’ or unclassified houses. These wines, spanning many decades, can be beguiling in their complexity, or simply delicious … [to drink], depending on the amount you wish to spend on a bottle.”
The resort also features a large selection of red blends from California, crafted with grapes from France’s Rhône Valley. “Wineries like Sans Liege, and Epoch, located in California’s central coast, have made it their business to buy up plots of Rhône varieties, mostly from the Paso Robles area, and blend them into concentrated wines with robust fruit and spice on the palate,” McLoughlin says.
While French wine labels and prominent California varietals can be some of the best, Michele Konopi, a Pennsylvania-based sommelier and certified specialist of wine, says she also enjoys sampling red blends from lesser-explored countries. “Some of the red blends I have tried in Portugal are seriously stunning and cost about 10 percent of a good Bordeaux,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to venture off the beaten path … there are passionate, hard-working and meticulous winemakers … all over the world.”
Many of these wines are expertly crafted, finished only after plenty of tasting and blending sessions to get the flavor profile just right. But, sometimes, little miracles can occur during the process. At Bianchi Winery and Tasting Room, winemakers pride themselves in crafting a mixture of estate, reserve and unique wines, including a couple of red blends. According to Kelsey Schmidt, former wine club and event manager at the Paso Robles, California-based vineyard, some of the best blends occur by chance.
Bianchi’s Syranot blend, for instance, was created by accident when staff members were re-racking pinot noir into syrah barrels. It has since become one of her favorite wines. “It turned out so well that we have now made this type of blend for four different vintages on purpose,” Schmidt says, adding that the current vintage is 75 percent pinot noir, 20 percent petite sirah and 5 percent syrah. “Every year it is different, but it is always unlike anything I have ever tasted before.” The winery also produces the GSM Geste, a Rhône blend made up of grenache, syrah and mourvèdre.
Along with discovering new flavors, other incentives pop up along the way as well. “Blends have grown in popularity because it gives the winemaker more freedom to create something completely unique that they can call their own,” she says, noting that many tend to have unique or meaningful names. For example, the name for Meritaggio, a red blend from David Arthur, was inspired by Meritage and received an Italian-sounding spin to showcase its Italian heritage, as the blend is made up of 44 percent sangiovese grapes.
The Finest Food Pairings
With such a vast number of blends on the market, it can be challenging to determine which wines pair well with which dishes. However, Konopi says all you have to do is look at where the wine comes from. “What grows together, goes together,” she says. “If it is a white blend being made in Greece, just yards away from the ocean, it would go nicely with seafood dishes. If it is being grown in an arid, dry and hot location, chances are the other things … [you’ll find] there are hearty greens and game.”
To aid in pairing, take a look at the dominant grape; usually, that will provide a snapshot of the dominant characteristics of the wine. McLoughlin suggests pairing Meritage and Bordeaux wines (cabernet and merlot bases) with classic entrées such as roasts, steaks and other heavier rich meats. When it comes to Rhône blends, he says that grilled or roasted lamb pairs best with syrah-heavy blends, while duck and lighter game birds go well with blends that feature a lot of grenache.
However you choose enjoy red wine blends, rest assured that they are here to stay and will only improve with time. “The technique of blending wine is centuries old, and I do not see it going anywhere [anytime] soon,” McLoughlin says. “The one thing that we will continue to see are winemakers pushing the envelope, and blending new and different varietals together, pushing to create new flavors and new ideas that perhaps we have not seen yet.”
Blending for Beginners
Try your hand at creating unique red blends at home with these expert tips and tricks.
Drink Up: If you’re planning to blend, be sure to drink your wine within two to four hours. “Once the wine is opened, it’s going to oxidize,” says Keith Wallace, founder of the Wine School of Philadelphia. With oxidation comes the loss of both flavor and aroma. “The only way to prevent the oxidation is … [with] products like potassium metabisulfite and argon, which aren’t readily available to the public.”
Ready, Set, Pour: To start, try blending wines at home. Open a few of your favorite single varietal bottles and begin to blend them together. If you enjoy cabernet sauvignon but are looking for a slightly lighter version, add a little merlot and cabernet franc; you might find it a bit lighter and maybe a little more complex, with smooth tannins from the merlot and an herbaceous taste form the cabernet franc. Some of the best blends are made from experimentations at the blending table or by accident in the winery.
Mix and Mingle: When you’re ready, begin to experiment—and bring others in on the fun. “It’s a great thing to try with a few friends,” says Michael Westrick, a winemaker for Notre Vue Estate Winery & Vineyards in California. “Open a bottle of cabernet sauvignon, one of merlot and a petit verdot or cabernet franc. Taste the individual wines, then play with blending particular amounts of each together in a different glass. You’ll be stunned at how every different each blend will taste. Some good, some not so good, but you’ll quickly realize blending is an art, and one that can result in wonderfully complex and intriguing wines.”