What do many of the wines from Bordeaux, Champagne, the Rhone, Port and Rioja have in common? Apart from being long established traditional wine producing regions and generic wine types most of their wines are made from blends of grape varieties. Many of the southern hemisphere producers whose wines have gained in popularity over the last two decades have often been easy to pronounce single varieties.
This is no coincidence as the wine makers in Bordeaux for example realised that when they blended wines from the rather tannic Cabernet Sauvignon, the softer plummy Merlot, the structured Cabernet Franc and Malbec etc the value of the sum of the parts was greater than their individual wines. Indeed the Bordeaux blend of these grapes as it’s become known is one of their strengths and is behind the names Chateau Latour, Lafite, Margaux etc whose wines command some of the highest prices in the world. This practice is the same at all price points and wines from the Haut Medoc such as Chateau Cadillac or Chateau Mayne Vieil from Fronsac can be enjoyed for a less stratospheric price per bottle. The same grapes when grown in hotter sunnier climates where the grapes ripen fully and make easy drinking wines with less obvious tannins are bottles separately and hence the proliferation of Chilean Merlot and Chilean Cabernet at great value prices.
In Chateauneuf du Pape in the Rhone Valley there are more than twenty grape varieties permitted for use in the blend and many contain at least five. The wine just wouldn’t be the same in terms of its complex fruit notes and delicious rich smooth yet distinctive flavours with integrated tannins if there were only one grape used as can be seen when making a comparison with wines from the Northern Rhone such as Crozes Hermitage made from the Syrah grape.
In contrast to these traditional wines I have been offered some very curious blends recently such as Chardonnay with Torrontes………..and it is difficult to understand why two such distinctive grape varieties should be blended together unless the producer or brand manager is using it as a desperate attempt to diversify his range and make a point of difference or they have grapes they need to use…. They are both grapes with strong aromas and tastes and unlike other blends where the addition of a small amount of a distinctive grape will lift the overall taste of an otherwise light weight wine they create a chunky unenjoyable drink.
The Australian combination of Sauvignon and Semillon is a great success where the tangy leafy Sauvignon with its refreshing acidity is balanced with the addition of a little of the more mouthfilling Semillon especially good from Vasse Felix in Margaret River. The Aussie Cabernet Shiraz or Cabernet Merlot blends are also successful where two full flavoured grapes with complementary flavour notes are used such as in the Musician made by Majella or Wirra Wirra Church Block.
Blends are often used for everyday wines ensuring lower prices in many cases without loss of flavour and style. Spanish wines are great examples of careful winemaking making enjoyable drinks where the addition of Sauvignon Blanc to the good but unexciting Airen makes a very refreshing white wine and the same result is obtained when Syrah is added to cheap Tempranillo in terms of red wine.
One of the most unlikely successful blends I have tried recently is Hancock and Hancock’s Cabernet Touriga from Australia…………….Blackcurrant Cabernet and vibrant Portuguese Touriga – whatever next but with a little oak aging it’s fantastic. Just goes to show if the winemaker experiments then perhaps we winedrinkers should too but learn as ever which to avoid!