NON-TRADITIONAL BLENDS IN THE “OLD WORLD”
A “blend” in the simplest of terms is a wine made with a mix of different varietal grapes. Rarely are different types of varietals blended without a clear purpose. After all, it is not the most efficient way to make wine. The Vitus vinifera vine that is responsible for wine grapes evolved into thousands of different varietals to adapt to different environmental conditions (e.g., soil, climate, geography), and as such each type of varietal requires different types of care and cultivation, not to mention that they often ripen and are ready to be harvested at different times and in different manners. For this reason, it is decidedly easier for a winegrower to make wine from a single varietal and minimize these varied cultivation tasks. But blending has its advantages, the two most popular: 1) to act as a hedge, capitalizing on why different varietals evolved, and 2) to manipulate the esthetics and taste of a wine to establish a modicum of consistency.
Let’s consider the Bordeaux blend: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. Merlot ripens earlier than the other varietals and is hardy enough to withstand cool temperature, so when a cold spring lingers and slows down the growth of Cabernet Sauvignon, pushing the latter’s ripening until late Autumn, then Merlot will save the day by taking on a leaner characteristic as opposed to a flabbier characteristic for the Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot will factor in as a bigger part of the blend in that winemaking year. In terms of taste and esthetics, Rutger de Vink, of RdV Vineyards, states it succinctly in a recent article in which he was quoted in the Washington Post: “Merlot is round, Petit Verdot adds color, Cabernet Franc brings freshness, and Cabernet Sauvignon contributes structure.” Of course, it took centuries to discover this perfect mix, and the varied terrain and microclimates of a broad area pulled it all together. Again, the hedge helps ensure that a harvest won’t be lost if environmental conditions affect one or more grape varieties adversely, and the variety of tastes and structure of different varietals ensure a type of consistent quality. And on this latter point, let’s remember that blending predates the technological chemical advances that can now be used to enhance the esthetics and flavor of a wine.
Since this wine club is about wines made from non-traditional blends, we won’t devote too much more time discussing traditional blends, but the topic is essential for wine lovers, and exceptionally interesting, so if you’re not well versed and want an introduction to popular blends, check out this article from Wine Folly: Famous Wine Blends.
You may also be wondering why we didn’t include “New World” wines in our non-traditional blend lineup, that is, wines grown in places where Vitus vinifera was not native, e.g., United States, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina, Chile. Well, essentially, any kind of “traditional” blend in the New World was borrowed from the “Old World” where Vitis Vinifera is native and has been growing longer. So, in not selecting New World wines, we got a little lazy and sidestepped a bigger discussion around how the same varietal from Europe can express itself differently in these geographies, which leads down a path of whether a non-traditional blend is maybe even better suited for that geography than an Old World-derived traditional blend.
Instead, we are operating on the assumption that traditional Old World blends are a result of centuries, and in some cases a millennium, of manipulation and outcomes that make them ideal for their appellations/regions. Hence, the nontraditional blends we chose for the May Wine Club involve talented, adventurous winemakers who are boldly creating a different expression of wine than what is usually found in the strict blending rules of their given region/appellation. The examples we found for you are from producers in Italy in Chianti Classico territory (Vecchie Terre di Montefili), in France in the Rhone Valley region (Domaine La Ligière), and in what many believe is the birthplace of wine in the European/Central Asian nation of Georgia (Teliani Valley).
VECCHIE TERRE DI MONTEFILI – A NON-CHIANTI BLEND IN CHIANTI COUNTRY
Vecchie Terre di Montefili is in the heart of Chianti Classico country between the towns of Panzano and Greve, and is a renowned, award-winning, DOCG producer of Chianti Classico. Grapes have been grown for at least 750 years on hills within the farm’s current boundary. For most of those years the monks of the nearby Badia a Passignano tended the vines. In 1979 Roccaldo Acuti purchased the land and transformed the property to revive Chianti Classico back to its stature as a worldwide-known appellation.
Vecchie Terre di Montefili estate, iconic Chianti, Tuscany
Since 2015, the winery has been run by Serena Gusmeri, an acclaimed winemaker and agronomist, who has instituted minimal intervention and integrated viticulture practices to the estate. Serena grew up in Brescia, at the foot of the Alps in the northern Lombardy region of Italy. She spent a year in Franciacorta making sparkling wines after a Masters degree in Milan, and wrote her thesis while working on vineyards in Australia, and afterwards worked in Campania. From these experiences, she learned to pay close attention to the environment of vineyards at a micro level, and for this reason she felt confident fiddling a little with tradition as a side project to her otherwise traditional work in the Chianti Classico DOCG.
Serena Gusmeri in her element
Featured Amaro Wine Club non-traditional blend: Montefilirosso (2017)
VARIETAL BLEND: 50% Cab Franc, 50% Sangiovese
The Cabernet Franc and Sangiovese are fermented and then aged separately for 20 months. Every year the proportion of each in the blend changes according to Serena’s assessment of how each varietal is expressing itself due to environmental and other circumstances that affected the varietals during the growing season and while aging. This non-traditional blend could technically fall under the moniker of a Super Tuscan in that it uses a non-native varietal to blend with the sanctioned Sangiovese native varietal of the region, but Montefili chooses to call it their “rosso” (red). The fermentation takes place in stainless steel using indigenous yeasts, and the Cabernet Franc is aged in 5 hectoliter (1 hectoliter is equivalent to approximately 26 gallons) tonneau, which is a thin barrel used predominantly for aging Bordeaux, and the Sangiovese is aged in large, 20 hectoliter, oak barrels. The aging lasts for a minimum of 20 months and then after blended and bottled they age a further 6 months in the bottle. The result is a clean, bold wine. The Cabernet Franc adds a unique vegetal sharpness that counterbalances the grippy, earthy Sangiovese.
FOOD PAIRINGS: mushrooms, pasta, lamb, spicy foods, pungent cheese, game
DOMAINE LA LIGIÈRE – PRIORITIZING FARMING OVER APPELLATION
The winery of Domaine La Ligière is located in Beaumes de Venise, a village in the southern part of the Rhone Valley in France. For five generations, the Bernard family cultivated the land in the southern Rhone Valley for grape vines and other agricultural products, but only since 2008 did Philippe Bernard and his wife Elisabeth Serra begin producing wines to sell commercially. The vineyards include plots in renowned Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) regions, including Cotes du Rhone, Vacqueyras, Beaumes de Venise, and Gigondas, and the estate produces labels under these AOCs made from grapes from vines that average 50 years (and up to 75 years on the oldest plot). Cotes du Rhone and Gigondas are known for their blends of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre, but the estate grows a plentitude of other varietals as it was once just a seller of grapes.
As biodynamic farmers, the composition of their land is studied avidly
On another note, Philippe and Elisabeth began their wine production enterprise with a dedication to cultivating their vines without the use of fertilizer, weed killer, or any chemical treatment whatsoever for over 10 years, along with continuing to let their other agricultural products flourish alongside their grapevines. The soil is plowed regularly and fertilized with organic compost in the fall, and the harvest is protected only with the use of natural products such as sulfur, copper, plant infusions (nettle, horsetail, wicker, etc.), and biodynamic preparations.
Philippe and Elisabeth on their estate
Featured Amaro Wine Club non-traditional blend: C'est pas Grave (2020)
VARIETAL BLEND: 60% Syrah, 40% Merlot, Caladoc, Marselan, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, Mourvèdre, Carignan
The grapes from this non-traditional blend wine are harvested from the estate’s AOC Vacqueyras vineyards. For those of you who are familiar with the Grenache-Syrah-Mourvedre blend that is so prevalent in the region, or any other combination of these three grapes, it comes as quite a surprise to see these other varietals, particularly because Carignan is a varietal that figures in traditional blends in the Languedoc while Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are Bordeaux blending grapes. To see these grapes from three different traditional blending AOCs all in one wine is quite the heretic oddity in tradition-steeped, extremely territorial France. The literal translation of “c’est pas grave” is “it’s not serious,” but a better translation is the idiomatic expressions “don’t worry about it,” or “it’s not a problem.” Clearly, Philippe and Elisabeth are telling us to put obsession with tradition aside and to “just trust them on this one.” And we think that you’ll agree with them when you taste this wine. We also selected it because it is perfect for the season – fire up your grill and uncork this gem.
FOOD PAIRINGS: charcuterie, red meats, and grilled veggies
TELIANI VALLEY – TAKING CHANCES AGAIN WITH NATIVE VARIETALS
Teliani Valley is located on the outskirts of the city of Telaxi in the region of Kakheti in Georgia, which shares its north and northeast border with Russia, east and southeast border with Azerbaijan, its southern border with Armenia and Turkey, and its western border is the Black Sea. It is located more in Central Asia than in Europe, and its wine history is older than Europe’s, dating back 8,000 years to 6,000 BC. In fact, Georgia is considered the place where Vitis vinifera was first domesticated. Georgians still make wine like they did thousands of years ago fermenting and aging it in large clay vessels called qvevri that are stored underground. The clay is fired, so it does not add flavors to the wine, but the porous nature of it allows some oxygen flow and even the white grapes are often kept on its skins for a time during fermentation and a portion of aging. In fact, this is essentially the description of an “orange wine,” so in case you thought orange wine was a new trend, now you know that it has been being made for thousands of years in Georgia, and still is.
Man next to Qvevri in Kakheti, Georgia in 1800s
Teliani Valley was started by Gogi Dakishvili in the late 1990s following the Soviet era and a messy civil war when there wasn’t even consistent power at the winery. Unfortunately, hundreds of different native varietals in Georgia were ripped up during the Soviet era to make room for industrial farming, but enough survived in people’s backyards that there are now 37 varietals currently in commercial production (although 525 varieties have been identified), and Gogi has been integral, among other key figures, in bringing commercial winemaking back to Georgia.
The Qvevri are underground where the wine is fermented and then aged
Teliani Valley only uses native varietals. Because commercial winemaking was largely obliterated during the Soviet era, many commercial Georgian winemakers are starting from scratch and sticking to single-varietal wines, since thousands of years of blending knowledge was essentially lost. Hence, the blend that is used to make your wine club wine is a unique venture by skilled winemakers who are pushing the burgeoning commercial industry into more sophistication and experimentation, essentially rediscovering the nuances of its many native varietals and its rich winemaking history.
Monasteries were integral to keeping tradition alive. Here, a monk tends to the wine
Featured Amaro Wine Club non-traditional blend from Teliani Valley: Kakheti Amber Blend (2019)
VARIETAL BLEND: Rkatsiteli, Kisi, Khikhvi, Kakhuri Mtsvane
Again, in Georgia’s reincarnated commercial wine market, it is unusual to see these varietals blended as they usually each feature in single-varietal wines these days. All four of them are harvested from the Teliani Valley vineyards planted at the foot of the Caucasus mountains in Kakheti, the eastern most region of Georgia. As is typical of many Georgian wines, the grapes are fermented and aged with their skins in qvevri underground, and in this case the macerated skins are aged for a formidable six months, so instead of defaulting to the term “skin contact” or “orange,” both of which are in vogue in the natural wine market to describe white wines that are aged with their skins, Teliani wishes to call this heavier skin contact wine what Georgians call it: Amber. Get ready for a dry wine that is almost sherry-like with serious floral notes and round tannins.
FOOD PAIRINGS: braised pork, rich soft sheep’s milk cheeses, creamy pastas, tinned fishes, game terrines, oily fishes