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John On Wine ­
Blends: The sum should be greater than the parts

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal on September 19, 2013 by John Cesano
John Cesano of John On Wine

John Cesano of John On Wine

Recently, I had a chance to judge and help pick a winning blend at the Third Annual Testa Barn Blend BBQ in Calpella.

Each table blended 2012 vintages of four wines, Testa Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Carignane, and Petite Sirah. Together with Rosemary Eddy and Sarah Bailey, a winning blend was selected from among the 22 created.

Maria Testa Martinson shared something that John Buchenstein told her, when he was dropping off graduated cylinders for the blending party; he said, “Blends brings people together.”

Fans of different varietal wines, a Cabernet Sauvignon lover and a Zinfandel lover as an example, can come together in their enjoyment of a wine that has some of both of these grapes in the blend. Also, at a blending party, the act of blending, creating a new wine through trial and error, mixing and tasting, with table mates, brings people together.

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Most of the wine you buy and enjoy is a blend. That Cabernet Sauvignon you just picked up likely has some Merlot blended in, just as many Merlot bottles have some Cabernet Sauvignon blended in.

To carry a varietal name on the label, a wine must be made up of at least 75 percent of that named grape, but can have up to 25 percent of non-named grapes blended in.

A reason for the blending is that Cabernet Sauvignon without Merlot is often too firm and harsh, and Merlot without Cabernet can be flabby and insipid; but a little Merlot makes a Cabernet Sauvignon a little softer and a little Merlot in a Cabernet Sauvignon in Merlot provides a little structure.

Throughout Europe, wines are most often blends. Buy a white Bordeaux, and you are likely tasting a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillion; a Châteauneuf-du-Pape can include any of 13 varietals but typically includes Grenche, Syrah, and Mourvèdre; while Chianti usually includes Sangiovese and Canaiolo. Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah may be added in a Super Tuscan. These classic, traditional blends do not have grape varietal names on their labels, but instead carry the place name where the wine was born.

One reason these traditional European wine blends for each geographical area exist is simple: the wines being made taste good.

Taking a cue from the old world, California wines, which carry varietal names, allow the blending of complimentary varietals, to also make good tasting wines, and without losing the main grape varietal identification.

Many years ago, at a barrel tasting weekend in the Dry Creek Valley, long before it picked up the reputation of being a drunk fest event, I tasted the best Zinfandel I had ever tasted. The barrel sample at Preston was amazing and I called and called about the wine, as it moved from barrel to bottle, and then through bottle aging, before release. At last, I got to taste the wine, and my disappointment was huge. Almost every Zinfandel I had tasted growing up blended a little Carignane with the Zinfandel, but this wine had blended the full allowable 25 percent of Cabernet Sauvignon into the Zinfandel, a blend I had never tasted before, making the wine taste nothing like any Zinfandel I had ever tasted. The blend yielded a wine that had lost all varietal correctness for me.

Because I loved Preston, I ended up tasting the wine again and again, and with each tasting I came to be upset less and less. Although the wine didn’t really taste like Zinfandel, letting go of the influence of remembering what had been the best barrel sample ever, and asking myself, not as a Zinfandel, but simply as a wine, was it good? Did I like it? The answer surprised me, as in time it became yes. This was, when not judged for varietal correctness, a delicious wine and incredibly food friendly.

Sparkling wines are often blends; any time you see the word Cuvee on a label, that sparkling wine is a blend, usually a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes.

Every local Coro Mendocino wine ever made is a blend, with Zinfandel comprising 40-70 percent of the wine, and the balance largely grapes that have historically grown alongside Zinfandel in the county going back 100 years.

Winemakers using only Bordeaux varietal grapes in a blend where no varietal meets the 75 percent or higher threshold can label that wine Meritage, if that winery joins the Meritage association and sends one of each case they make to the person who coined the portmanteau, joining the words marriage and heritage, at the program’s inception.

Saracina has their Atrea Old Soul Red, Greg Graziano has his Saint Gregory Pinotrois; local proprietary blends abound.

I find blends exciting because they free a winemaker of the need to hew to varietal correctness, and allow for greater artistry. With no burden of expectation, the wines often surprise and delight.

I frequently serve blends with a dinner and revel in the way the different foods on my plate pull different aroma and flavor notes from the component wines of the blend, allowing the wine to pair brilliantly, but differently, with each dish.

Blend wines are often natural food chameleons, going with a wide variety of flavors, and, as such, should be sought out when enjoying a meal at one of inland Mendocino county’s wine friendly restaurants.

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John Cesano writes about wine and has more than two hundred posts online at JohnOnWine.com