“I have Cab in a Bordeaux style blend”, I reply, trying not to roll my eyes.
“Not the same!” He almost shouts back at me, and turns on his Italian leather heels to the next victim’s table.
Of course, this kind of banter is the fodder for many jokes and regalia of rude patrons at shows and events, and even a few guests in our tasting rooms. However, winemakers don’t laugh it off entirely. Especially those of use devoted to offer the American palate the virtually unexplored joy of domestic premium wine blends. The American wine experience has long been preoccupied with varietal wines, a departure from the Old World focus on region. Although we have American Viticulture Areas, and we have some notion of which varietals those areas produce well, we do not tend to associate a specific style of wine to the AVA, with a few exceptions. But why?
I would argue that the American wine market retains an erroneous fidelity to varietal wines as a repository of Prohibition, an excellent marketing program launched in the early 1970’s and the influence of celebrity wine critics with rather dull palates. This history is riddled with social and political nuances that could fill volumes…but for another time. For now, I would also argue that the prolific rise in huge alcoholic over-oaked fruit bomb wines is the end result of a flawed devotion to varietal wines that simply cannot create the balanced and complex table wines we desire. Very long hang times create wines that elicit little varietal character and can only vaguely be classified as big, bold red wine. Of course, we cannot underestimate the influence of bad blending protocols in the domestic market, either.
American blends have had a bad reputation as winemaker’s swill for good reason; historically blends have been comprised of heavy press fractions and sold as the byproduct of varietal wine making. Inferior wines that don’t make the cut for mid tiered or premiums fill the proprietor blends, often the value wines in the portfolio. The practice of separating inferior wines and putting them into table blends has become a standardized practice for most wineries who produce blends. It makes economic sense. But it also denigrates the importance and perception of premium wine blends.
We only have to look to the Old World wine regions to know that the best wines in the world are blends, with few exceptions. A quick perusal of top shelf European wines elicits one very obvious conclusion; varietals are not listed on the labels. These wines are produced as a regionally endorsed product, with a sense of place far exceeding the importance of the varietals. Of course, we understand that each region has evolved over long stretches of time to grow and develop varietals that compliment one another in blends. Bordeaux varietals offer the most obvious example of this with Cabs providing structure, Merlot filling in the missing mid palate of the Cab, Petit Verdot and Malbec providing fruit up front and the Cab Franc and Carmenere offering nuanced vegginess and subtle spices. A tapestry of flavors woven by varietal typicity and the artistry of the winemaker.
I make blends due to personal preference. I find that blends almost always deliver a more complex and interesting wine compared to varietals. Blends can be drunk early or laid down, if well crafted. Blends should be lower in alcohol, allowing me to drink more than one glass at dinner! Blends offer more flavors and complexity to pair with interesting food flavors. I love to try other winemaker’s blends because I find that winemakers who blend well embrace the artistry in winemaking, and I love to see how they mix their palettes!
Of course, I must admit a romantic devotion to democracy in blending. As silly as it sounds, I profoundly believe that everything is better off in the messy mix. Winemakers who call themselves “Purists”, those fanatically devoted to varietal wine making, are missing out on the surprising synergy of a graduated cylinder filled with something entirely unexpected. And delicious.