Wine Blending 101
When a wine is made from 100% of the same grape variety, it is called a single varietal wine, but when there are several varieties of grapes that are used for wine production, this is a blended wine. This technique is used around the world, from Bordeaux to Champagne and as far as Patagonia, Argentina and Australia.
If we want to summarize, we could say that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Indeed wine blending consists of mixing grapes from different vineyards or varieties. The best example is in Bordeaux, since most of the best vintages in this region are vinified with at least two different grape varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot). Often, we will even assemble them with the 3 other grape varieties from the appellation (Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot). In Champagne, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay are blended to produce the best bottles.
Why blending ?
What the winemaker seeks to do is taking the best of each varietal or vineyard plot so that together the final wine is more complex, richer and that some of the grapes come to improve the quality of the wine. For example, in the case of powerful and muscular grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, using Merlot to complement the wine will round off the finished product with its velvety side. In other cases, Cabernet Franc will be added for its freshness and acidity characteristics.
Timing of the blend
It is always after fermentation that the blending method takes place. It is up to the winemaker, to choose the timing : either at the beginning of the winemaking process, after aging the wine in stainless steel vats or in barrels or at the end during bottling. Everything is a question of choice, know-how and experience.
And practically ?
I recently had the opportunity to assemble various varietals during my visit to Château Ste-Michelle, in the beautiful Columbia Valley, in Woodinville, Washington. The largest producer in this state offers its visitors the opportunity to make their own blends. The estate has 6 wines of 4 different grape varieties in barrels. In this case, we are talking about two Merlots and two Cabernets Sauvignons from different vineyards as well as Cabernet Franc and Malbec. To be able to make a good blend, it is obviously necessary to taste the different components, so the 6 wines from the different barrels. Floral, vegetal, woody, fruity, tannin and acidity, each element is analyzed according to your own tasting. Afterwards, it’s up to you to « mix » what you value most. In this regard, the proof that there are differences from one terroir to another, one of the merlots was very concentrated with a lot of fruit extraction while the other was more elegant and complex. Same thing for the Cabernet Sauvignon from the same estate as the first Merlot, which was just as dense and powerful. The other Cab was all restrained and distinguished.
How about proportion ?
This is where the expertise of the winemaker who knows his grapes and the wine generated by his own care comes into play. As I said, each variety has its own inherent characteristics. Cabernet Sauvignon is used to give body, dense fruit and color to a wine. Merlot will give it a nice fruity and velvety structure. As for Cabernet Franc, it will bring the spiciness, the freshness and sometimes herbaceousness to balance the very ripe aspect of other grape varieties. Finally, Malbec will bring richness and a juicy side to the whole.
How about the results ?
We can never say it enough but each palate is different, depending on the preferences, habits or even the level of knowledge of the wine for someone. What was the most interesting in this blending workshop at Château Ste-Michelle was the fact that all the apprentice blenders can bottle a one of a kind wine. There is indeed no other wine in the world than the one you just blended on site. Using a measuring container, you just need to choose the percentage of the 6 different wines that you want to use for the final product. For my first try, I chose 40% Canoe Ridge Estate’s elegant Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Cold Creek Vineyard Cabernet Franc, 20% Columbia Valley Malbec and 15% strong Cold Creek Vineyard Merlot. The result was interesting, but lacked freshness to my taste for a consumption in the near future. The second try was good, this time with 40% Malbec and 20% each Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Everything was in the right place, at least according to my personal taste: voluptuous fruit, clear freshness and easy drinking. What a horrible label though, I agree … I am 100% responsible …
The talent of the winemaker
Let’s face it, I had the easy task, since I never picked the grapes, vinify them on the estate and wait until it matures in stainless steel or barrel. But trying to understand how the blending process works helps to demystify the process a bit and make you understand and respect more, if necessary, the winemaker’s work. For the record, the bottle of my own vintage was very appreciated by my guests when I returned home. Is a new career looming on the horizon? Not at all… I prefer to drink it…
Then why not dip our taste buds in a few bottles of wine from Château Ste-Michelle ? The estate, founded in 1934, was a pioneer in planting vinifera vine varieties (the so-called noble grape varieties) in the region. Since 1967, wine has been bottled under the Château Ste-Michelle label. In the end, the products have this little « best of both worlds (New and Old) » taste.
Château Ste-Michelle, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2016, Washington State, USA
This is the best known flagship wine from the estate. Obviously it’s a blend ! 91% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Syrah, 1% Grenache and some hints of Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Merlot and Petit Verdot. The 14 months of barrels give this wine lots of black fruits, a rather silky texture with accents of smoke. ($ 19.95)
Château Ste-Michelle, Shiraz, 2016, Columbia Valley, Washington, United States
This one is a very versatile one with 98% Syrah blended with a small 2% Viognier for its floral side and aromatics. Color and concentration were highlighted with skin maceration. Then the wine matured for 16 months in oak barrels. As a result, it is juicy, fruity and round thanks to its roasted notes. ($ 19.95)
Ste-Michelle, Intrinsic, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2016, Columbia Valley, Washinton
This new cuvée from Ste-Michelle is « on steroids » because in this case, half of the harvest macerated for 9 months . Let’s say it is a fully-bodied wine but with a rather silky texture. This blend of 96% Cabernet Sauvignon and 4% Cabernet Franc is juicy with notes of blueberries, cherries and cocoa. A piece of lamb should be fine to pair with. ($ 29.95)