One way that many people describe what sort of wine they like or dislike is by grape variety. “I like cabernet sauvignon,” or “I hate shiraz,” I am sure many of you have done that. In many ways, grape varieties have become brands unto themselves, often taking up as much space on a label as the name of the winery, and certainly more than the country or region where the wine was made,
However, these single varietal wines are often not made with only one grape variety. Because of what I consider to be inadequate labelling laws, depending on where the wine was made, the grape variety listed on the label may represent only 75 per cent of the grapes used. Why doesn’t every grape that was used in making the wine get listed on the label? Again it is about branding and consumer recognition. It is a lot easier to remember one grape than two, or three or even four.
Then why do winemakers mix varieties? In many cases it is about adding complexity to a wine, or in some cases, making up for shortcomings in certain grapes. It can be a case of adding texture, or boosting aromatics, or adding acidity and freshness.
While many in the new world have tried some rather unique blends and, in some cases, have enjoyed a certain amount of success, many of these blends are classics, having been used in many European appellations for centuries.
So what are they and why are they used? Here are three classic couplings.
Cabernet sauvignon and merlot
This could be the most famous blend of all. Its roots are in the left bank of Bordeaux – what is widely considered the home of cabernet sauvignon. And while it is the major player, most wines owe at least a part of their success to merlot as well.
So why these two? PJ Charteris, winemaker at Brokenwood Winery in Australia, told me that “the classic cabernet sauvignon palate has the ‘doughnut effect,’ or a hole in the middle. It just so happens that merlot fills the hole.” There is also the complimentary effect of merlot’s red, plummy fruit and the darker cassis and blackberry notes of cabernet sauvignon. And if that is not enough, merlot’s softer, more velvety texture and softer tannins give the wine more immediate drinkability, while the cabernet’s firmer, harder tannins need more bottle age to soften up.
But there is more. Merlot ripens up to a month earlier than cabernet sauvignon, so by growing both grapes, it offers the winery an insurance policy against the inconsistencies of climate. So in cooler growing seasons, when the cabernet may not ripen fully, the winery can choose to reduce the yields on the cabernet vines, so that the bunches will ripen, and use more merlot. Likewise, in growing seasons which are hot, where merlot can lack acidity, the winery may choose to eliminate it almost completely.
This is why there is a difference between the proportion of grapes grown by a winery and the proportion that ultimately makes it into the wine. For instance, the grapes grown at Château Lafite Rothschild are 70 per cent cabernet sauvignon and 20 per cent merlot. The rest of the blend is made up of cabernet franc and petit verdot, but they are small-time players. In certain years, the wine can be made of up to 95 per cent cab.
Shiraz and viognier
If one of the advantages of the cabernet sauvignon and merlot marriage is the delayed ripening times, this unique coupling is all about two varieties ripening together. Why? So that they can be fermented together. Most blends are made from grape varieties being made into wines and aged separately, and then blended. But here, we find a red grape, syrah, and a white grape, viognier, being thrown into the vat at the same time and fermented together.
Its roots are in the famous northern Rhône appellation of Côte-Rôtie.
The viognier is normally used on its own to make Condrieu, but small amounts are often saved to be used in making the red wines. This technique has now travelled to both Australia and California. Why?
One of the reasons that I have heard is that the addition of viognier will help stabilize the colour of the wine. Bill Easton, owner and winemaker of Californian winery Terre Rouge, says he finds it lightens the colour of his wine – which he likes.
The main reason they do it at Terre Rouge is to “add aromatics and finesse to a wine in a more intense year, and to soften up the tannins.”
Classic viognier is very floral, and it can add a beautiful perfume to the syrah. “But,” Easton added, “my friends in the northern Rhône told me that in cooler years, the viognier can add alcohol where the syrah is deficient.”
Sauvignon blanc and sémillon
Varietal sauvignon blanc has become one of the world’s most popular white wines. In both France’s Loire Valley and New Zealand, it stands alone. However, when I did my sauvignon blanc taste test a few years ago, my tasting panel found that when priced under $20 a bottle, wines made with 100 per cent sauvignon blanc were often disappointing. It wasn’t really until you got to over $25 that the wines really became interesting, no matter where the wines were made.
Why is this? Sauvignon blanc is part of the family of white wines that are known for their acidity. And while their beauty lies in their freshness and aromatic purity, the vast majority of the inexpensive wines lacked body and elegance. They were overly acidic, which might have been a result of the vines producing too many grape bunches, a necessity if the winery is to sell the wine at a bargain price.
But when blended with sémillon, it is a whole other story. The blending of sauvignon blanc and sémillon is best known in Bordeaux and the French appellations of the southwest, most notably Bergerac. It is also the way that most sauvignon blancs are done in Australia. And perhaps the most famous products of this blend are the sweet wines of Sauternes.
There is no recipe for percentages of the grapes, as sometimes the sauvignon blanc dominates while other times it can be the sémillon. What does sémillon bring to the relationship? For all of sauvignon blanc’s perky acidity and blend of exotic and citrus fruits, sémillon, with its oily texture and lower acidity, adds some much-needed body. I have also been told by a number of winemakers in France and Australia it can also give both immediate aromatic complexity and an ability to give the wine amazing complexity with some bottle age.
Next time you pick a batch at Urban Vintner, why not look to the blends for a different take on your usual wine?
Tonight I am looking forward to a South African blend of Syrah, Mourvedre and Viognier – can’t wait!