By Dan Berger

Americans seem fixated on varietal wines. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and many more now are seen on the majority of wines.

This unfortunately ignores a class of wines eminently worth considering: blends, notably from red wine grapes.

Varietal wine makes up about 75% of all California wine labels today. 

Varietals must contain at least 75% of the grape named on the label, meaning a Zinfandel can have as much as 25% of other grapes blended in and still be called Zinfandel. So what happens when a wine maker finds that a blend of 52% Zinfandel and 21% Carignane, along with bits of this and that, make an even better wine?

Such a wine might be designated as a proprietary blend, but some buyers still dote on varietal labels and thus are blends a tad harder to sell.

Indeed, some wine makers have learned that blending can really backfire. In 1999, Ridge Vineyards made a superb red wine blend of Carignane, Zinfandel and Grenache, with a number of other grapes used for complexity.

Because it wasn’t 75% of any one variety, it carried no varietal designation. Ridge called it simply, “Coast Range.” Which prompted one wholesaler that represents Ridge to tell the winery it wasn’t interested in carrying it! The wholesaler said he didn’t think he could sell a non-varietal wine.

Oddly, however, that very same wholesaler carried a number of French regional wines that are blends.

The consumer may well be more accepting of blends today than just a few years ago. Over the last decade or so, I have seen a lot of blends showing up that are better than varietals from the same producer.

A key reason for this is simply that the careful blending of different grapes can yield a more complex wine, since such blends often have multiple flavors compared with the less complex nature of single-varietal wines.

Numerous Rhône-styled red wines are being made today that carry proprietary designations. Most contain Syrah, Grenache, Carignane, and Mourvedre, and some even have a touch of Zinfandel.

Among the names you’ll see out there are Tablas Creek’s Cotes de Tablas and Esprit de Beaucastel; Zaca Mesa’s Z Cuvée; Bonny Doon’s Le Cigare Volant, and literally dozens more. Many of these blends are patterned along the lines of the southern Rhône Valley, in particular the red wines called Chateauneuf du Pape.

These southern Rhône blends are legally permitted to have as many as 13 different varietals in their blends. And many other countries are now offering superb blended wines that are Rhône-style blends, primarily Australia. 

From Down Under, wine makers refer to these wines as GSM blends because the dominant grapes in them are Grenache, Syrah (Shiraz) and Mourvedre. Among the best (often using proprietary names) are from Rosemount, Yalumba, Peter Lehmann, and d’Arrenberg (whose Stump Jump is a great value),

There are even some Rhône-ish blends coming in from Spain and South Africa (like the humorously named Goats du Roam).

One of the keys to such wines is Grenache, a grape that some people dismiss as second-rate, but which, when grown in the right soil and climate and especially when harvested from older vines, can make a spectacular base for a blended red wine. 

It also makes a lovely varietal on its own, as proven by many examples out of Australia. However, Grenache is in short supply in California, and thus are blends that feature only smaller amounts of it more practical for wineries that can’t get all the Grenache they would prefer.

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