August 11, 2011 by Doug Haugen
A Wine Event Celebrating the Art of Blending
The measure of a chef, it’s fair to say, is his/her ability to pick the finest of ingredients, assemble them in such a way that the characteristics of each complement the others, resulting in a dish that delivers texture and flavor that pleases the palate. If, for example, you found yourself seated at Tendrils Restaurant at Cave B Inn, and ordered the special, you’d probably be pretty disappointed if they brought you a banana instead of Double R Ranch striploin on rustic blue cheese mashed yukons with black trumpet bordelaise. Nothing against bananas, but you don’t need Executive Chef Bear Ullman for that. You just don’t.
The same is true with wine and winemakers. Nearly every bottle you see on the shelf is a blend of some kind. Sure, there are the Bordeaux blends, “red wine” blends, table wines, etc., but even apparent single varietals are rarely 100%, and when they are, they’re often blends of different lots, different vineyards, different AVAs. A winemaker, like a chef, is constantly assembling constituent ingredients to make a great wine. A little of this for structure, a little of that for mouthfeel, a little of this for color, a little of that for body. (Imagine Dr. Frankenstein rolling Angelina Jolie off the assembly line.) Even if you pick up a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, to be called such on the lable, the bottle has only to contain 75% of Cab. A quarter of the volume can be made up of whatever else the winemaker feels would enhance the overall composition of the wine, and it can make a big difference.
Over the past couple of years, I gingerly asked a variety of winemakers, “Do you blend to hide flaws, or to enhance something great?” The question wasn’t meant to suggest the wines may be altogether inferior, but if the winemaker wants to add acidity, for instance, is it because the wine he/she has is seriously lacking in acidity and needs to be corrected, or is it generally pretty good, but would be that much better with something blended in? The answers were nearly as indignant as I expected, but answered courteously across the board. Blending enhances good wine. Bad wine can only result in bad blends, but like chefs, combining the best ingredients in the right proportions can result in a wine that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Capish?
There are nearly infinite variations of signature blends, but there are some broad categories that you’ll often see on the shelf.
In France, the only grape varietals allowed in a Bordeaux blend are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Carménère, and Cabernet Franc. French winemakers typically choose two or three of these grapes for their Bordeaux blend, and rarely use all six. Most often, either Cabernet or Merlot take up the lion’s share of the blend, Cabernet in “Left Bank” and Merlot on “Right Bank” Bordeaux blends.
White Bordeaux Blend
White Bordeauxs are typically blended from Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle, with Sémillon as the dominant grape. They can also use Ugni Blanc, Colombard, Merlot Blanc, Ondenc and Mauzac.
In the United States, Meritage (rhymes with “heritage”), is a Bordeaux-style wine, but since the grapes don’t come from the Bordeaux region in France, cannot be called a Bordeaux blend. To label a wine with the Meritage designation, a winery must apply and be approved by the Meritage Association, which looks to validate that the winery produces at least 25,000 cases of Meritage a year, and that it’s one of its top-shelf wines.
Wineries that make blends of the classic Bordeaux varietals but do not qualify for one of these designations must call their wines something else. Often, we’re seeing them called “red wine” on the label, or a unique name invented by an individual winery.
Super Tuscan Blend
In the 1970s, Italian winemakers decided to go rogue and stray from Italy’s blending laws, using different combinations of grapes. They started blending Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese, Syrah, Merlot and Petit Verdot. They were eventually awarded an official designation as “Super Tuscan.”
These are just a few of the big blends consumed around the world. There are many others, of course, both in broad categories, and blends unique to individual wineries. It could be a delicious and long endeavor to drink them all.
Blending isn’t easy. In 2008, we suggested that Crushpad’s Fusebox would make a great gift for any of your vinophile friends. We tried it out, of course. Six small bottles of 100% single varietals came in a box, along with graduated beakers, pipettes, paper for tasting notes, and a book of recipes to blend your own versions of well-known blends. We were studious (at first) in getting our blends exactly right, but it was amazing to see how the smallest change in the blend–like accidentally dumping one extra milliliter of Petit Verdot into a glass–would drastically change the overall composition of the wine. To make the best-tasting blend, it takes the acumen of a scientist, the skilled hand of a surgeon, the vision of an artist and the palate of a Master Sommelier to get it right. In my mind, the talent of a winemaker is most demonstrable in his/her blends.
On September 18, a wine event is coming to Seattle that celebrates blends. In a stroke of brilliant nomenclature, this wine festival is called “Blend.” Now in its second year, Blend is coming to the Bell Harbor International Conference Center, showcasing blends from forty of Washington State’s top wine producers. If a winemaker’s talent is brought to light in the blends, then this event will no doubt be like attending the Olympic Games. And like the Olympics, the wines will be vying for the top prize in the Blend Awards, but judged by all those in attendance.
Like all events coordinated by Jamie Peha of Peha Promotions, the ticket price offers tremendous value. Not only will you sip multiple blends from forty wineries, but you’ll get a chance to try blends from Argentina, France, Italy and Spain courtesy of Wine World. Of course, no wine gala is complete without food, so you’ll get to nibble on nosh from award winnings chefs at Salish Lodge & Spa, The Inn at Langley, Cave B Inn & Spa, Kenwood Inn and Spa and more. You can refresh your palate in the Bubble Lounge with sparkling wines, champaigne and oysters from Taylor Shellfish Farms. Plus, you can experience blending in action at the barrel blending stations featuring Washington winemakers pouring samples that comprise one of their signature blends. And, of course, you get a commemorative wine glass, and the chance to chat with all the winemakers pouring for you, which, to me, is the best part.
Until August 15, tickets to Blend are just $49, and just $59 after that, which is still an incredible value for the wine, food, education and camaraderie that you’ll experience at the event. We’re excited about Blend; September 18 can’t come soon enough. Hopefully we’ll see you there.