There’s beauty in blends
The first time I visited South Australia’s Barossa Valley, in the early 1980s, my local friend sped (and I mean sped — I recall we were airborne when we hit rail tracks across the highway) past the Wolf Blass winery with a breezy, “We won’t go there. He’s just a blender.”
She didn’t mean Wolf was a small kitchen appliance, but she was sneering at blended wines, as if only wines made from a single grape variety were worth tasting.
I didn’t point out (I was afraid of her driving) that if you dismissed blending, you dismissed most wines from places like Chianti, Champagne, Bordeaux, and Rioja, not to mention port. Then there are the thousands of cabernet-merlot, GSM (grenache-syrah-mourvèdre), shiraz-cabernet and other combinations that line the shelves in wine stores.
It could well be that most wines are blends, as wine laws permit producers to label blends with only one variety, as long as it makes up 85 per cent of the contents (75 per cent in the U.S.). So your bottle of Napa cabernet could have up to 25 per cent merlot in it; your bottle of Australian shiraz might have up to 15 per cent cabernet. Or they might be 100 per cent of the variety on the label.
Varietal wines (made from only one variety) are probably a minority, although it’s required for many wines in Burgundy, the Loire Valley and elsewhere. (A small point: “varietal” is an adjective, and to refer to grape varieties as “varietals” — which is very common in the wine world — is incorrect.)
Winemakers blend in order to shape wines to desired styles. They blend to achieve a particular colour, to reduce or increase tannins and acidity, and to modify flavour. Each grape variety has its own cluster of characteristics, and by careful blending, a winemaker produces the style of wine she or he wants — within the parameters of the varieties that are used.
I’ve tried blending wines a few times, and it’s amazing how adding or subtracting just a percentage or two of one variety can alter the overall style. Blending is a combination of art and science, and requires skill and patience.
Today’s wines are all blends, three of them classic. Producers of red wine in Châteauneuf-du-Pape are permitted to use as many as 13 specified varieties, though most rely heavily on grenache, and draw on only two or three others. Reds from Côtes du Rhône are predominantly grenache, syrah and/or mourvèdre, with an option to use any of another dozen or so varieties. Chianti is more complicated. The original list of grapes was set down in the mid-19th century, but it has been revised several times since then. Currently, sangiovese must be at least 75 per cent of the blend, with other specified red varieties making up the rest (Chianti Classico is slightly different).
The point is that blended wines are inherently no better or worse than varietal wines. Poor Wolf Blass was unfairly dissed 30 years ago, but he found it amusing, when I once told him about it.
Fontella Chianti 2010
Look for plenty of bright fruit in this good-value, easy-drinking chianti. It’s reasonably complex, is flavoursome and is nicely balanced with fresh acidity. A cliché, I know, but it’s a good choice for pastas and meats with tomato-based sauce. 13-per-cent alcohol; $11.95 (230797)
Clos du Calvaire Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2010
This is an excellent price for a Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The fruit is rich and concentrated, layered and complex, and the wine is balanced, nicely structured and moderately tannic. Drink it with well-seasoned red meats, like rosemary and garlic lamb. 15.5-per-cent alcohol; $28.95 (296855)
Tinto da Anfora Red
From the Portugal’s Alentejano region, this good-value red blend (three Iberian grape varieties plus cabernet sauvignon) shows consistent concentrated fruit and a rich, tangy texture. It’s a good choice for grilled red meats and seasoned sausages. 14-per-cent alcohol; $11.95 (227256)
La Fiole Côtes du Rhône 2010
This is a very attractive blend of grenache and syrah from the southern Rhône Valley. The fruit is quite intense and polished, with good complexity, and it’s paired with clean, juicy acidity. Drink it with red meats or with pork or even rich poultry dishes. 14-per-cent alcohol; $13.95 (293498)
Email Rod Phillips at email@example.com. Join him online Thursdays, 2 to 3 p.m. at ottawacitizen.com/winechat, and follow him on Twitter.com/rodphillipswine