By: Denise M. Gardner
Wine blending is often highlighted as the artistic portion of wine production. However, blending can also be used for practical or economical purposes. This blog post will explore some of the common introductory reasons for using wine blending to craft red wines.
Why do winemakers blend wines?
Wine blending is a wine production technique that can be used for a multitude of purposes in order to finish a wine. Some of these reasons include, but are not limited to:
- Creating a house style
- Improving vintage consistency
- Highlighting vineyard terroir
- Enhancing a wine’s positive sensory characteristics
- Minimizing a wine’s undesirable sensory components
- Balancing oak flavors
- Altering a wine’s chemistry
- Managing wine inventory
- Blending out (i.e., getting rid) of problem wines
- Additional reasons…
House style and vintage consistency can be very important for a brand’s marketability and reliability amongst consumers.
Many Champagne producers rely on blending to create a house style cuvee associated with their sparkling wines. While these are not red wines, creating a house style is often based on specific sensory or taste characteristics that are desirable by the winemaker and contribute to major blending decisions. These blending decisions help minimize vintage-to-vintage variation and variation in grower supplies of fruit while enhancing consistency for their brand.
The same concept can be applied to red wines, but with the use of red wine grape varieties. House blends can be represented with blending names such as “Proprietor’s Red” or “Winery’s Name House Blend.” Having wines that are labeled as a blend provides flexibility for the winemaker to create a wine that is of a similar style on a year-to-year basis while altering the wine grape varieties that go into the blend every year.
The other advantage of creating house blends is that these wines allow winemakers to work with variations in varietal inventory. If we take the last example above, Cupcake Vineyard’s Red Velvet wine, while three different varieties make up the blend, the percentages of each variety contributing to the blend can vary from year-to-year. This may help mediate changes in yield each harvest season.
Improving Annual Wine Consistency or Highlighting Vintage Variation
Blending can a winemaker’s best tool in enhancing vintage consistency, especially in cooler growing regions where vintage-to-vintage variation is prevalent. There are a couple of ways that winemakers have been able to accomplish this practice.
- Reserving previous vintage wines for blending into future vintages.
- Purchasing bulk grapes/juice/wine from warmer climatic regions and blending in small amounts to each vintage.
While neither of these practices may be ideal for terroir expression of certain wine blends, these blending practices provide opportunities to expand a winery’s product portfolio and enhance wine style variation associated with the brand.
In contrast, blending can be used as a tool to illustrate and celebrate vintage variation, which is an inherent component of winemaking. Not only do these wines offer unique educational and marketing opportunities, this is a tactic that can be used to differentiate premium products within a brand and cater to those consumers that are wine enthusiasts or have a greater interest in vintage-to-vintage variations for a particular brand. This practice can also better capture the brand’s terroir, which can be a key marketing feature for wineries with estate vineyards. Additionally, these wines offer exceptional tasting experiences for consumers that enjoy vertical tastings of multiple vintage years, and can be used for various sale promotions over several years.
A common example of this practice is demonstrated by Allegro Winery & Vineyards in Brogue, PA. The Cadenza and Bridge wines are designed as premium brands, vintage dated, and blended to a particular style in those years that produce the best quality red wine blends.
Wine blending to fix problem wines
While less artistic and perhaps a bit less creative, blending can also be used to help minimize the impact of problem wines or wines that have noticeable defects, flaws or quality shortcomings. Minor problems can often be partially masked by being blended into aromatically rich varieties like Concord, Niagara, or Catawba. Noiret, a red hybrid variety, also has a relatively rich aroma/flavor of black pepper which may be an alternative aromatically rich blending variety, as well as the utilization of formula wines with strong added flavors.
Wines suffering from minor oxidation problems can often be added to richer, fresher, younger wines at minimal levels without hindering the fresher or younger red wine. Additionally, wines with a slightly elevated VA (~0.50 – 0.70 g/L acetic acid) can be added to wines with a lower VA (<0.40 g/L) after the high VA wines have been properly treated and stabilized to avoid contaminating a clean wine.
Allegro Winery’s winemaker, Carl Helrich, worked with Penn State Extension Enologist, Denise Gardner, to improve some of the Penn State-produced problem wines with use of wine blending.
The key thing to remember when blending clean-wines with problem-wines is that winemakers want to avoid creating a series of lower quality wines in order to get rid of a problem wine. Keep in mind that it is not likely that one will be able to create a “unique blend” by using problem wines to any degree. Winemakers are more likely to create a “good enough” or “commercially acceptable” wine when utilizing blending for this purpose.
All wines that have issues should be analytically and sensorially evaluated before and after blending to ensure chemical and microbiological stability.
Q. Where were you born ?
“I was born in Bellville in May 1972.”
Q. Where did you study ?
“I did Viticulture and Oenology at Elsenberg where I finished in 1994. I was appointed at Meerendal in 1998. The first ever female winemaker in Durbanville let alone Meerendal which was founded in 1702 and had it’s first wine bottled in1969 !”
Q. That must have been quite daunting ?
With a delightful smile “I guess so but I had been well taught and was willing to work with nature rather than against and that made it all much easier. Not that winemaking is really easy !”
Q. Do you consider your approach to winemaking to be different to others ?
“I suppose not really although I prefer not to intervene too much in the cellar. I am not a great fan of using the latest enhancing products that the industry bombard you with. I want to bring out the best of what the vineyards give me for any particular year and avoid the chemicals !”
Q. How involved do you get in the vineyard ?
“A lot. I keep an eye on the spraying programme as well as the canopy management . My involvement in the vineyard is equal to that in the cellar.”
Q. Do you have any particular varieties you prefer to work with ?
Immediate response. “Yes I love working with sauvignon blanc and Merlot. These varieties always surprise me, as you never know what to expect with the new vintage. Nature has a big influence on what these varieties will do year to year. Pinotage , Shiraz and Cab are more predictable.”
Q. However you have made some great wines from those varieties ?
“Yes especially the Heritage Block pinotage and my new Merlot Prestige.”
Q. Have you been influenced by any particular winemaker or by a wine region ?
“ Not so much, although the winemakers in Durbanville do share a lot of info. We help each other out. So I would rather say that my biggest influence is definitely my Durbanville colleagues. Then my visit to Italy opened my eyes, especially the southern part with their white wines.” Then continues “I still believe that wine should encapsulate a place in time. As a product it doesn’t play by the same rules as mass produced consumer goods , It is always differs year to year and place to place. My intention is to make the best and most interesting wines from Meerendal’s vineyards with a willingness to work with Mother Nature rather than against he.”
Q. What do you consider your greatest achievement as a winemaker ?
Answers jokingly “Still surviving as a woman in a cellar after 18 years !”
Q. What “secrets” have you “developed” that make your wines different to others ?
“There are no secrets …… I work with what Nature gives me each year.”
Q. How important is modern winemaking equipment in your winemaking ?
“It plays a big role….It makes the process, quicker and easier. It is beneficial to producing quality wines, especially when you are in an industry with so much competition.”
Q. What of the future ?
“I will answer that with a quick review. I began my career in winemaking at Meerendal in 1998 as an assistant winemaker and then 2005 and 2006 I was the viticulturist at Meerendal then moved back to the cellar as Cellar Master and have since taken over the whole process. From vineyard to cellar and even involved in the marketing. So I have a pretty full plate ! It will no doubt get even fuller as the future of wine in South Africa looks very promising. I do wish we would get more support from the Government on the international scene and especially in research and training. I also hope to see the growers and producers getting better prices for their products. Especially where the big retail companies are involved. Words like rebates and discounts come to mind….”
I have been wanting to write this blog article for a couple of months now, but truth be told, I have been putting it off because I was scared. Scared that I was going to sound pretentious and obnoxious and scared that I was going to upset some people by voicing my opinion. I have recently overcome my fear since I figured the world will probably still be so upset with Donald Trump’s obnoxious opinions, mine probably won’t even show up on the radar. Be that as it may, let me just reiterate that this article is written as the opinion of one wine consumer (and previous wine tasting room employee) that wants to offer some friendly advice to tasting room staff across the nation (well, mostly the Western Cape, to be fair). So here goes…
I have attended quite a number of wine tastings in the few short years that I have found myself in this industry. They have been in tasting rooms across most of the wine growing regions in the country. I have had unbelievable experiences that I will never forget in a lifetime. Stories that I will one day tell my grandchildren (when they are old enough, of course). I have attended tastings that were presented with so much energy and enthusiasm that I bought a bottle of wine even though I couldn’t actually taste the wine – seeing as I had a terrible cold – thank goodness it turned out to be a great bottle. I have also attended tastings that were just so simple and elegantly presented that I ended up buying a R400 bottle of wine- and for a student that is quite an expensive bottle of vino that is now lying in the cupboard waiting to age for another two years.
Yes, I have experienced many above average wine tastings, but what puzzles me is the shocking amount of poor wine tasting experiences I have had. I have attended tastings that left me with more questions than answers. I have attended a tasting where it seemed like the guy who served us would have preferred presenting us with a tasting of protein shakes, which, frankly I would not have minded, if it would have sparked at least some interest from him. I have been in tasting rooms where the staff completely forgot that we were there and on another occasion staff couldn’t have cared less that we were there. So it’s safe to say that along the way I have had my fair share of bad tastes left in the mouth by tasting room personnel. But I thought that I would put my experiences to good use and hopefully help SOME wine tasting attendees avoid the disappointments that I had to face.
Now, I know I am generally a tough critic but with wine tastings there are just a few simple things that I require from the person that is presenting wine to me. First and foremost, this person has to assume that I know absolutely nothing about the wine that they are presenting to me. Don’t assume that I have heard of it before or that I know what “Blanc de Blanc” means. You, as tasting room assistant, need to tell me everything I need to know about the wine so I can tell my friend about it if I like it so she or he can buy it too. Then, just some basic wine knowledge will count in your favour (and mine). Know which type of oak is more likely to develop which flavours in red wines and know which cultivars are found in a Bordeaux-blend. Most of these things are fairly easy to find on the internet so if it gets quiet in the tasting room after lunch time, read up a little bit, empower yourself. Lastly, show some enthusiasm and interest in the product that you are presenting and ultimately trying to sell. I can very easily notice when someone has just memorised the winemaker’s tasting notes and are reciting them to me like it’s supposed to be a lyrical poem, but that’s not what I want to hear. I can download the winemaker’s notes from the internet if I want his or her opinion on the wine. I want to hear what YOU think of the wine. YOU as a fellow wine consumer and now member of this incredible industry. We need more people showing initiative and less parrot learning.
At the end of the day, it all boils down to the people that are in managerial positions. As a manager, you have to make sure that you employ staff that are passionate about wine and that want to build a career in this industry. But also, as an industry we have a responsibility to educate tasting room staff from all walks of life so that if that passion isn’t there right from the start, it can be developed over time through wine education and practical exposure. As one of the top wine producing countries in the world, we definitely need to up our game in terms of tasting room contact and it needs to start at the cellar door.