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).