It seems the wine world has a new obsession: singularity. Single clone. Single vineyard. Single varietal. But as it turns out, blends today can be just as, if not more, impressive. We sat down with Master Sommelier Christopher Bates, chef-owner of F.L.X Wienery, to better understand wine blends and whether or not they’re worth drinking.
Q: Are you a supporter of blending wines?
A: I love it! Singular wines are great and can be really wonderful in terms of learning, educating and awareness, but it’s often at the loss of complexity. I love the complexity that comes from blending, not just grapes, but blending vineyard sites, vintages, grapes picked at different times and clones. Blending is a beautiful art and a way to layer wines and build in complexity, detail and nuance.
Q: How does blending make a wine more complex?
A: The complexity comes from blending different elements and flavor components. If done well, 1+1 = 3, like in the case of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. There’s no one dominating note. It’s all of it. You get more detail. You smell something and it’s not just any one thing, it’s the whole thing. And it smells like the place, as opposed to the grape or the vineyard. Blending creates a wine that’s more authentic to the whole region.
Q: What are the blending trends lately?
A: People are getting away from obligatory blends of Cabernet, Merlot, Cab-Franc and Petit Verdot and we’re seeing more interesting blends that challenge regional traditions and norms, like Grenache with Syrah and Mourvedre. We’re also seeing more field blend white wines, like in the Finger Lakes where people are blending Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Chardonnay.
Q: So are wine blends generally just blending varietals?
A: No, today we’re seeing lots of people doing continuous fermentation blends. If your field is scattered with grape varieties throughout, you generally pick it all at once, even if some ripen later or earlier. So some of your grapes might be overripe and some under ripe. Now people are adding to wine throughout the harvest as each grape is ready, like when I picked my Pinot Noir, I put some into the bin. Later when I picked Syrah I added that in, and then Lemberger.
Q: So picking at multiple times is trendy now?
A: For sure, even within the same plot. Like, I picked some of my Riesling early, waited a few weeks and picked at normal ripeness, and then picked some overripe.
Q: What’s the value in that?
A: You get more acid for early pickings, and then as the grapes ripen, sugars spike, acid drops and you get more opulence. So you bring all those components in, balance them and create a really complex wine.
Q: Does that only work for Riesling?
A: No, Gewürztraminer is classic example of this style, as it seems there is no ripe. When it gets aromatic and floral, Viognier is same way. So are non-vintage champagne or ports, to another extent—it’s what you get from taking the freshness of young wine and building in the complexity of older wines. There’s also cluster blends.
Q: What’s a cluster blend?
Zinfandel is the ultimate cluster blend. In every single cluster you find black, red and blue fruit, so the resulting wine is really nuanced.
Q: Are wine blends generally more expensive than singular wines?
A: That’s impossible to answer. Bordeaux is technically a blend, while Burgundy is not, but both rank as the most expensive wines in the world. That said, price point can be an indicator of a good blend versus cheap grocery store wines that are blended to hide something.
Q: So what price point should we look for?
A: Anything under $12 may be questionable as to why the wine was blended. Above $20 is generally legitimate. However, in the U.S. a wine only has to be 75 percent of that varietal to be labeled as such. So most of the wine we drink here is actually blended, we’re just not told it’s a blend on the label. So another thing to look for is whether the wine is labeled as a blend. If you’re telling people it’s a blend, it’s more likely you’re proud of it.
Q: What are some of your favorite blends?
A: There’s so much great stuff at $25 for Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Try Clos des Brusquieres Chateauneuf-du-Pape. I also really like white blends from South Africa. Alheit Vineyards Cartology blends Semillon and Chenin Blanc and it’s awesome. And I love Bloomer Creek White Horse Red blend of Cab Franc and Merlot.