The majority of the wines you drink are blends, but why do winemakers blend and what does each variety bring to the final wine? Washington State winemakers tell us their tricks.
“I love blending,” says Ben Smith co-owner Cadence Winery. “It’s one of the two times a year—along with harvest—I actually feel like I’m making wine.”
Almost all wines are blends of some sort. Some might be a blend of different barrels, vineyards or blocks of a single variety. Others might be a blend of different appellations or varieties.
But why do winemakers blend?
“The art of blending, to me, is to take individual pieces and make the sum of what you’re blending better than those individual pieces you started out with,” says Mike Macmorran, winemaker, of Mark Ryan Winery.
Once grapes are in the winery during harvest, winemakers immediately start evaluating what they have, tasting first each fermenter and then barrel, keeping notes, rating and ranking along the way.
“I start building a map,” says Kevin White, proprietor and winemaker of Kevin White Winery. “I know this combination may work well because I’ve got earthiness here and bright fruit here and structure there and I’m going to get spice here. Five times out of ten, it was interesting in theory but didn’t work out, but the other five times it can be kind of interesting.”
The point at which winemakers decide to start blending varies. “I actually feel like the earlier you can get the wines blended, the more complexity you’re going to have in a youthful wine,” says White. He prefers to blend some of his wines immediately after fermentation is complete, while others he blends six months after harvest.
Others start much later. Macmorran typically blends wines 14 months after harvest. “It gives you more opportunity to taste the wines longer as an individual part,” he says.
Once winemakers start blending, they pull samples from a selection of barrels, and out come the pipettes and graduated cylinders, with winemakers often making 100 milliliter sample blends.
Many winemakers will start by making what is referred to as a ‘base blend,’ which will be the foundation of the wine.
“If I’m starting with our Cabernet-based blend, I’ll put together a really good Cab blend which will end up being 60–65% of the final wine,” says Brian Carter, winemaker and managing partner, of Brian Carter Cellars. “Then I look at increasing complexity and increasing balance by adding other varieties. If I add too many other things that it no longer tastes like Cabernet, then I’ve gone too far.”
Often winemakers will start by blending in larger percentages and then move to smaller percentages, evaluating all along the way. As they get closer, they might look at tweaking just one or two percent of a wine.
“A lot of people wonder, what does two percent do?” says James Mantone, winemaker, vineyard manager and co-founder, of Syncline Winery. “Sometimes it’s radical what it does. It can change the whole sensation of a wine.”
Some winemakers will take several hours to put a blend together. Others might take days, weeks, or even months, depending on the size of the winery, the winemaker’s approach and the vintage.
In each case, winemakers go through an iterative process of evaluating different blends. It might be a handful of iterations or it might be many more, depending on the particular wine.
“We may go through 60 to 70 blends of some wines before we’re happy with one,” says Mantone. “You’re progressively fine tuning.”
The process is not always straightforward. “It’s not intuitive where all of the best wine going into one wine creates the best wine,” says Chris Peterson, winemaker and partner, of Avennia. “Until you put it together and taste it, you can be really surprised.”
“You can take two really soft wines and blend them together and they become incredibly tannic and undrinkable,” agrees Mantone. “Likewise, you can take two really tannic wines and blend them together and all of the sudden they become much silkier.”
How does a winemaker know when they’re done making a blend? “As soon as you try to move any individual part and anything you do is not as good, there you are,” Peterson says.
Winemakers say some blends come together quickly, whereas others can be a challenge. “Sometimes it’s overwhelming,” says Mantone of the process. “At a certain point, you just have to throw your hands up and say, ‘It’s no longer practical to keep tweaking it.’”
“It’s easy to overthink it a little bit because there are a lot of combinations,” White says. “For me, it’s about what’s really delicious at the end of the day.”
Typically, winemakers will make several candidates for a final blend and then let them sit for a period of time before reevaluating them. “It’s really good to step away and come back,” says Mantone. “Sometimes you’ll think, ‘What were we thinking? We liked this one?’ You can get so focused in on the minutiae.”
Once the final blend is decided upon, individual barrels are combined together into a blending tank and typically returned to barrel for additional aging and ultimately bottling.
Here is a look at what some Washington State winemakers say their local varieties contribute to two common blends.
“Cabernet Sauvignon tends to bring great intensity, great power and weight to the wine,” says Macmorran. “It’s a bigger, brooding, broad shouldered wine with more tannin intensity on the back end.” Black cherry, black currant and herb aromas and flavors are common.
“I feel like Merlot is all about mid-palate,” says Brandon Moss, partner and co-winemaker, of Gramercy Cellars. “Those tannins hit you more in the mid-palate rather than right up front and at the tail end like Cabernet Sauvignon does.” Aromas and flavors can include raspberries, cherries and chocolate.
“Where we pick it, Cabernet Franc is going to contribute a green herbal component as well as pretty strong red fruit—cranberries and Bing cherries,” says Moss. “It will kind of hit you up front with tannins and then fade off at the end.”
“Malbec is a very dark fruited, fruit-forward wine,” says Moss. “If you’re looking for that big fruit component in your Cabernet, it’s a grape you can use to boost that fruit profile.”
“Petit Verdot is acid and tannin,” says Moss, who notes that it is often added in minute amounts to blends.
“Intense color, intense flavor,” says Macmorran. “Tons of ripe sweet flavors on the mid-palate but then on the back end, you have lots of structure.”
“What Grenache is going to bring is bright red fruit—strawberries and cherries,” says White. “You get nice richness, especially in the mid-palate. In hotter vintages, you’ll get some characteristics that are a little more savory. In cooler vintages, you get some spice.”
“Syrah is such a chameleon,” says Macmorran. “It has a very broad spectrum of aromatic and flavor profiles where you really wouldn’t even think it’s the same grape.” Aromas and flavors can range from raspberry, blueberry and blackberry to smoked meat and olive.
Syrah also changes the appearance and structure of a wine. “Syrah adds color,” says Carter. “It also tends to add a little bit more tannin and also add finish.”
“For Mourvèdre you’re going to get raspberry, but you’re also going to get leather and pepper,” says White. “In some of the hotter vintages, it’s going to go more toward black pepper and in the cooler vintages, you’re going to get more of that white pepper.”
“[Carignan] can bring in some of the herby, wild aspects, that for me is such a charming thing with the Rhône varieties,” says Mantone. “It’s herbs and spices and savory things.”
“[Cinsault] can be a little light on the palate but a very intense flavor profile,” says Mantone. “It can help reduce some of the heaviness of the palate.”
By Sean P. Sullivan
June 12, 2018
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