Sunday, February 12, 2017

To Blend or Not to Blend

I’ve heard passionate wine drinkers extoll the virtues of blending grapes, as if a blend is always a better wine. Likewise, I’ve heard wine fans lament when winemakers won’t just stick to one grape. Let’s explore why some wines are blended and some not, and whether one is better than the other. I learned by experience when visiting Sonoma, California that blending wine well is HARD.

Why blend?
  • Taste:  Grape varieties are often blended to balance out the characteristics of a wine. For instance, a grape with low tannin might be blended with a high-tannin grape to create something more well-rounded.
  • Vineyard Insurance:  Blending can provide insurance in the vineyard. Different grapes are more or less susceptible to weather or pest problems. If you plant more than one grape and something goes wrong with one of them, you might avoid losing your whole harvest. Your blend may taste different from one year to the next with a different ratio of grapes, but at least you’ll have a product.
  • Business/commercial reasons:  Maybe you don’t grow enough of one grape variety to produce it as a varietal wine. You might blend it with a second (or third) grape, to have a larger production of a blended wine instead of a smaller production of two varietal wines.
Bordeaux makes the most famous blended wines in the world, but lots of wines can be blended without having to mention it on the label. The rules in most wine regions allow a producer to list a single grape on the label, even if they've added 10% or 15% of another grape into the blend.

Blended wines are made in two ways. The most common way is to ferment each grape into wine separately, and then blend the wines together. Another way is to create a "field blend," which means that the different varieties of grapes are planted mixed together in the vineyard. In this case, the grapes are all harvested together and made into wine in whatever proportion they were growing in the field.

I tried my hand at blending wine when I visited the Clos du Bois winery in Sonoma, California. Clos du Bois makes a "meritage" wine, a fancy marketing name for a Bordeaux-style blend, called Marlstone. If you visit the tasting room, you can reserve a spot in their "Marlstone Experience," where you can use the same varietal wines that Clos du Bois uses to try to imitate their Marlstone blend or create your own. Just as in Bordeaux, you choose from base wines of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot.

Left to right:  Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, "Your blend," and Marlstone

First, I tasted all the wines and blended equal parts of my favorites. It tasted terrible. Then I tried a more typical Bordeaux-style blend: mostly Cabernet Sauvignon with a little Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Better. In the end, the best results came from letting one grape take center stage with small amounts of others playing supporting roles. After at least an hour of trying, I still hadn't created anything I really liked. Blending is hard, but this counts as one of my favorite wine experiences ever.


A blended wine is not necessarily good or bad. It's the result of trying to create a better wine, ensure a stable harvest, or navigate a competitive marketplace. If you're still skeptical of blended wines, just remember: 9000 years ago, Neolithic people were making alcoholic beverages out of grains, fruit, and honey mixed together, basically combining beer, wine, and mead. It makes blending together a few different grapes sound like much less of a big deal.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Wine Infographic: Merlot Cheat Sheet

Next in the wine cheat sheet series:  Merlot!

The full collection of wine cheat sheets is here.

To see the Cheat Sheet in full size…
…in Internet Explorer, right click on it and select “open in new tab.”
…in Chrome, right click on it and select “open link in new tab.”
…in Firefox, right click on it and select “view image.”  

You may also be interested in:
French Wine Cheat Sheet
Bordeaux Wine Cheat Sheet
California Wine Cheat Sheet
Washington and Oregon Wine Cheat Sheet
Chilean Wine Cheat Sheet
The Big 6 and Where They're Hiding

Monday, January 2, 2017

Bordeaux Trip - Free Info Session and Wine Tasting

Regular readers know that I'm acting as the wine educator on a river cruise through Bordeaux in October 2017.

If you're interested in learning more about the trip, join us at a free info session and wine tasting in February in Houston.

Check out the Facebook event here.

For location details or questions, RSVP to:

More information about the trip here.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Counterfeit Wine is Fascinating

Buying fake wine is not a problem you or I are likely to have, but it is fascinating nonetheless. Unscrupulous people have created fake bottles of rare, old, or expensive wines by blending together other wines and putting them into bottles made to look like the real thing. These counterfeiters age the bottles and labels, and sometimes buy bottles of the real wines to drink and refill with their imitation blend. To do this successfully takes a lot of wine expertise and a lot of startup money. These people are usually looking to make a buck, but they seem to also get a kick out of the prestige of circulating with the top collectors, critics, and writers of the wine world and offering up impressive (fake) bottles for tastings and auctions.

So many aspects of this are fascinating to me:  the process of creating a believable fake, the way the counterfeiters ingratiate themselves with collectors and experts so that the bottles they produce will be accepted as authentic, and the forensic detective work that can unmask the frauds. Another attractive aspect may be that I don't expect to ever have to worry that a wine I'm buying is a fake, for the simple reason that I doubt I'll ever buy a wine so expensive that a wine counterfeiter would bother to fake it. Creating a fake wine is only worthwhile at the very top of the wine market, where wealthy collectors are spending thousands per bottle.

I can recommend a great book and a great movie about fake wine. The Billionaire's Vinegar is an excellent wine detective story that begins with a bottle supposedly once owned by Thomas Jefferson. A wine aficionado will recognize many of the names and places, but no wine knowledge is necessary to enjoy the story. (A movie of the book has been listed on as "in development" for several years. Matthew McConaughey was set to star at one time.)

A great documentary about another massive wine fraud is Sour Grapes, which is currently available to stream on Netflix. Here's the trailer:

Either of these would be a great way to spend a few hours during your holiday time off, and the book would make a great gift.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Wine Infographic: Port Wine Cheat Sheet

Next in the wine cheat sheet series:  Port!  Port is a great wine to keep around during the holidays. It's a warming, celebratory drink as well as a festive gift.

The full collection of wine cheat sheets is here.

To see the Cheat Sheet in full size…
…in Internet Explorer, right click on it and select “open in new tab.”
…in Chrome, right click on it and select “open link in new tab.”
…in Firefox, right click on it and select “view image.”  

You may also be interested in:
Easy Chocolate-Port Brownies
A Dessert Wine from the Texas Piney Woods
Sherry Cheat Sheet

Sunday, November 6, 2016

A Beer Aged in Sherry Casks

The annual International Sherry Week goes from November 7th through 13th. (The Sherry Cheat Sheet can help you navigate the complex world of sherry and find something fun to drink.) This year, I celebrated Sherry Week with an ale aged in sherry casks. UK brewer J.W. Lees matures its Harvest Ale in barrels previously used for sherry.


Friday, October 21, 2016

Mint Beers for All Seasons?

I’m on record as a fan of herbal flavors in beer (see Lavender Beers for Summer), and I love all things mint. I recently came across my third mint-flavored beer, and they say three’s a trend, so it deserves a post. These three beers could not differ more. One is thick, dark, and bitter. One is sour, tart, and earthy. One is light and crisp. Here’s a rundown on each:

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Moravia in Texas

Last weekend we went to the Houston Slavic Heritage Festival, as we do most years. This year it celebrated the food, music, and crafts of the Ukraine, Czech Republic, Croatia, and Poland. I drink beer at the Slavic Fest (it goes perfectly with sausage and sauerkraut!), but being there reminded me to drink my bottles of wine from the Moravia Winery in central Texas.

The Moravia Vineyard and Winery is named (I assume) after the town in which the vineyard resides, Moravia, Texas (though the winery's address is in nearby Schulenburg). Moravia, Texas was founded in 1881 by Czech and Moravian settlers, who named the town after the Moravian region of the Czech Republic (or do we call it Czechia now?). This region of the Czech Republic produces more than 90% of the wine in that country, so it makes perfect sense to name the winery after the town named after the region.

The Moravia Winery grows Blanc du Bois (white) and Black Spanish/Lenoir (red) grapes, which it produces in a dry style. It also makes a sweet rosé. These lesser-known grapes flourish in regions near the Texas gulf coast where humidity and Pierce's disease wreak havoc on other grape varieties. (For more information, check out "Introduction to the Grapes of Texas" or "Profile of the Black Spanish Grape." Disclaimer: the link to the Black Spanish profile leads to an article I wrote for Home Brew Talk, and it contains a few errors introduced by their editors, which is why I no longer write for the site.)

Earlier this year I bought a bottle of Moravia's 2014 "Red Wine Cervené Vino Rosso" at the Urban Harvest Eastside Farmers Market and a bottle of 2014 Blanc du Bois at the downtown Houston Spec's. Both were around $20. (Google translate says that cervené means red in Czech.) I stuck the bottles in the wine fridge and nearly forgot about them until I saw the Moravia region of the Czech Republic mentioned at the Slavic Fest.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Wine Infographic: Italian Wine Cheat Sheet

Next in the wine cheat sheet series:  Italy!

I've covered Chianti before, here.  The full collection of wine cheat sheets is here.

To see the Cheat Sheet in full size…
…in Internet Explorer, right click on it and select “open in new tab.”
…in Chrome, right click on it and select “open link in new tab.”
…in Firefox, right click on it and select “view image.”  

Friday, August 19, 2016

Lavender Beers for Summer

I am a well-documented lavender freak. I love the smell, I love the taste, and I always have to try any food or drink that contains it.  I’ve written before about lavender cocktails (here and here), I love my lavender earl grey tea, and I own a lavender cookbook. So of course I was excited when one of the new-ish Houston-area breweries – No Label in Katy, TX – released their “Forbidden Lavender” ale. Then I started noticing other beers that incorporate lavender and decided a post was in order.