Wine Blends That Impress

harvest at Martha Stoumen, photo by Andrew Thomas Lee

harvest at Martha Stoumen, photo by Andrew Thomas Lee

Winemakers around the world create captivating blends

Sometimes it pays to adhere to tradition (and in some regions it’s a must) but in the ever-changing world of wine, change can bring something unexpected and exciting to the table. Blending is an essential skill for winemakers to flaunt every varietal at his or her disposal—whether as a creative whim, out of necessity, or as even their appellation dictates. 

Fun and Fresh

Every grape has their part, whether it’s the star of the show or a crucial supporting role in the blend. Some varieties add tannin or spice, while others provide needed fruitiness, aromatics, tartness, alcoholic content or other characteristics. Also, some are just thrilling to try. Northern California winemaker Martha Stoumen makes unexpected and stimulating concoctions like her Post Flirtation red that puts carignan and zinfandel together in a flirty union. Stoumen’s Honeymoon bottling is an intriguing mix of the French whites colombard (most often used in brandy production) and roussanne. It bursts with exotic tropical fruit aromas. Stoumen does make single varietal wines but the blends are meant to represent Northern California in a wider capacity and she approaches them “just as I would if I were making a stew at home.”

“We don't have to stick to the traditional blends of Europe, and why should we? We are a different land and culture, so let's lean into that aspect,” Stoumen says.

For orange wine fanatics, Joe Swick, winemaker at Swick Wines, makes fun and frisky skin-fermented white wines out of the Pacific Northwest. Swick’s Only Zuul orange is a fragrant blend of gewurztraminer and pinot gris—the noble grapes of Alsace.

Change is inevitable 

sorting through the harvest at Martha Stoumen, photo by Andrew Thomas Lee

sorting through the harvest at Martha Stoumen, photo by Andrew Thomas Lee

As winemakers see more consistent warm weather from year to year because of climate change, some blending is being done out of necessity rather than creativity. Even classic regions are adjusting their rules. This year, Bordeaux, which is no stranger to blending, just proposed a handful of new grapes for use in the Bordeaux AOP and Bordeaux Supérieur AOP. Some of the proposed grapes include the Portuguese touriga nacional as well as albariño and petit manseng. If approved by France’s agricultural governing body the Institut National de L’Origine et de la Qualité (INAO), these grapes can start being planted in 2020. 

The Portuguese are skilled at blending wine like no other, with over 250 native grape varieties in their back pocket. Herdade do Esporão, a leader in sustainable viticulture in the arid Alentejo region, makes elegant ageworthy reds that include some French varieties like syrah. “It’s true that syrah has crept into the Alentejo, it performs well in the region and is featured in Esporão’s top blend Private Selection where we blend it with alicante bouschet and aragonez,” says Esporão’s longtime winemaker David Baverstock. 

He explains further that the tannic French cabernet sauvignon was widely planted on their estate at one point but has fallen out of favor because it does not handle the heat well. Though still used in small quantities, vines are being ripped up and not replanted. Alicante bouschet, a teinturier (grape that adds color), also has French origins but thrives in the Iberian sun.  “Alicante Bouschet is a much better variety in providing color and tannic structure,” he says.

Appellation Laws

Winemaking laws differ from region to region with some being more strict than others. These laws are updated frequently but can be a timely and bureaucratic process. “The New World” (any winemaking region outside of Europe) regions do have rules but are generally less rigid than those of “The Old World” (Europe). For Example, under the Barolo DOCG law, no grape other than nebbiolo can be blended into a Barolo wine. In regions like Napa Valley AVA an 85% rule is put in place, which requires the stated grape on the label comprise 85% of the wine. The other 15%, though, gives flexibility to the winemaker. Furthermore, regionality matters—if, for instance, Napa Valley appears on a label, 100% of the fruit must come from Napa Valley. 

These laws are put into place to protect consumers, winemakers, and the region’s reputation. However, times change, weather changes, production costs go up, consumer expectations change 

As new ideas emerge, tradition and innovation blend together, and sometimes winemakers even forego the rules all together. A risk to some, but a risk worth taking to others. Tignanello, anyone?

Check out some exciting blends from around the world:

Fattoria Serra San Martino Roccuccio 2014

Marche, Italy ($15)

This IGT Rosso Blend from Italy’s Adriatic Coast is an approachable blend of montepulciano, syrah, and merlot. Vines are planted on clay (merlot loves clay), sand, and limestone. Merlot provides a softness, syrah adds spice and montepulciano does the heavy lifting  (at 60% of the blend) by giving the wine a backbone. It then matures in French oak. This rosso has supple brambly fruit and won the Bronze Medal for Best Italian Red at the 2019 New York International Wine Competition

Herdade do Esporão Esporão Red Reserve 2011

Alentejo, Portugal ($22)

Esporão is a leader in Portugal when it comes to doing what’s best for everyone and the environment. They have high standards for energy efficiency, and practice organic and sustainable viticulture. Change and creativity are embraced and encouraged with Esporão and their wines. The 2011 Red Reserve combines cabernet sauvignon, alicante bouschet, aragonez and trincadeira. All were vinified separately followed by a year in French and American Oak before blending for more maturation.  Dried currants, spice, and firm tannins make this wine ageworthy and rustically elegant. Esporão took home a Gold Medal for their 2014 Esporão Private Selection at the 2015 New York International Wine Competition for Best White, Portugal. 

Le Grand Noir Brut Rosé NV

Languedoc-Roussillon, France ($19)

Le Grand Noir makes a handful of wines from Southern France including GSM and Pinot Noir/Grenache blends. The goal of the Le Grand Noir is to make wines that are distinguished and different. Their new venture is into the world of sparkling rosé. This non-vintage pink fizz is a blend of 50% carignan and 50% grenache. —a unique blend that is not often sees. Ripe red strawberries, juicy raspberries and soft bubbles round out the palate. It was a favorite at the 2019 New York International Wine Competition where it won the Silver Medal for Brut Rosé with Non-Traditional Varieties. 

Laherte Frères Les 7 Extra Brut NV

Champagne, France ($70)

David Baverstock of Esporão, courtesy Esporão

David Baverstock of Esporão, courtesy Esporão

Try this one on: There are actually 7 (not 3) permitted grape varieties in Champagne! Champagne is known for its blending just as much as Bordeaux. However, the holy trinity of Champagne: Pinot meunier, pinot noir and chardonnay are the most planted. The other four—arbanne, pinot blanc, pinot gris, and petit meslier are allowed but very rarely bottled for the prestigious bubbly. The Laherte family has been in Champagne since the late 1800s. Located in the village of Chavot, they are noted for being progressive and experimental. None of the grapes in Les 7 comprise more than 20% of the blend individually. The final result is a wonderfully modern wine that is rich and complex. 

Dirty & Rowdy Familiar Blanc 2018

California, USA ($30)

Hardy Wallace and Matt Richardson make wines (their wives Kate and Amy help too) that go against convention, and we are here for it. Their goal is to make “honest wines that we want to drink” and blend some of the most unconventional grapes together. What began in 2010 as small 300-case production morphed into a nearly 3,000 case production today selling out every year. These two best friends source grapes from organic and sustainable vineyards all over California—no additives, no filtration, just great wine. The Familiar Blanc white blend includes semillon, pinot blanc, viognier, chenin blanc, marsanne, and muscat.  Luxuriously approachable.