Monday, March 30, 2015

RED BLENDS: A New Old Trend

Vineyards of France Sud front the Pyrenees
Budbreak has started in the spring-like Russian River Valley, a sure sign that our growing hopes to produce the very best wine(s) is renewed.  Recently, a January Nielsen 2015 report noted that domestic red blends, as a consumer category, eclipsed $900 million in annual retail sales; strong evidence that this is a very fast growing selection trend for a growing number of wine lovers. But why? There have almost always been blended wines. And, marketers have trained us consumers to follow the minimum 75% rule for varietal identification. My local wine shops display vast selections of domestic wines, with prominent signage by grape variety. As a consumer trend it seems what was old has once again been renewed, just like our grapevines.

Today, I believe,  there are more widely distributed producers offering consistent wine quality than ever before. And, the science of global viticulture, promoted by world leading institutions such as University of Adelaide(Australia), the University of Bordeaux, and our own UC Davis, among others, continue to promote advancements in sustainable, quality grape farming.  Plus, a growing number of wine consumers have wine traveled, explored broader international selections in wine by the glass programs, and may have found blended wine pricing easier on their young pocketbook.  Yet, for more than a thirsty generation, many consumers have been adamant that they would only drink Cabernet Sauvignon, or anything but Chardonnay(ABC's). 

What we know about blending wine is that it can add complexity: more than a single flavor or personality, it can enhanced a wines color, power or finesse. A blend varietal may be needed to add balance, to offset sharp astringency or to contribute a firmer backbone or an acid adjustment to bring the wine into balance.  Many times, for these 'built' wines, the sum becomes greater than its component parts. Over the centuries, wine grape growers have discovered which varieties grew best(productively) in their vineyards, producing quantity that many times sacrificed quality. A local blending may have been required to produce a better wine. Importantly, the market was historically local, so comparisons and competition were non-stop. And not all production would have been in the hands of the grower, as a specialist, a negociant, would have built the wines from local resources.

With mandated standardization, the southern Rhone wine based in the widely grown red variety Grenache, Châteauneuf-du-Pape once allowed 13 designated blended varietals.  Initially designating 10 approved varieties in 1923, it grew to 13 in 1936, and currently allows 18!  Further north a Côte-Rôtie AOC is typically a blend of Syrah and up to 20% Viognier.  Over in world-famous Bordeaux AOC, we find a classic red marriage of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, providing the house(chateau) the resources to create a blend that reflects their unique place.  White Bordeaux's typically blend Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon & Muscadet, to create their signature, and a domestic 'Meritage' is by definition a blend.

Traditional method sparkling wines are not immune. Classic Champagne is a blend. Head south to Spain and sparkling cavas are blends, too.  As is the Fino Sherry I adore. With more than 500 chronicled grape varieties, Italy's Super Tuscans, and most wines produced from their twenty DOC wine regions are typically blends.  With some of the earliest protective wine regulations, Portugal's red native's: Touriga Nacional, Toriga Francesa, and Alicante Bouschet are prominent among the hundreds of grape(castas) varieties approved for production of Port wines.  The winemaker can ferment the varieties together, combine during the aging process, or marry in a tank prior to bottling, all with the goal of creating a better wine.

If a drinking memory serves, two generations ago you could easily find a restaurant wine list that offered, "Red - White - Rose'".  Those bulk wines were blends, and seemed to pair effectively with everything on the menu.  Then you needed to be 'Cab-savy', or trend with the latest and greatest Chardonnay.  Perhaps it was the business meals and the expense account, or maybe it was just easier to remember Merlot rather than Amarone della Valpolicella, but we called out single grape varieties.  Today, it seems just as common to call for an easy drinking, great food-pairing proprietary blend.  We are renewed, having happily grown into something new that is an old trend.

Values Found:
  • Dona Paul Black Label Red Blend 2012(Argentina)
  • Bogle Vineyards 'Essential' Red Blend 2012(California)
  • E. Guigal Cotes du Rhone 2013(France)