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.