Mixology of the vine

While I notice many consumers have learned that blended wines are not inferior wines, I still see that some almost wrinkle their nose when they see blends.

By blends, I refer to wines labeled cabernet/merlot or cabernet/shiraz, not just cabernet sauvignon or merlot. Some are just labeled red; others labeled meritage. In the United States, a wine must have 75 percent of one grape to be labeled only with that grape’s name. In Australia, it is 85 percent.

The Australians were the first to market blends, and it could be that they felt restricted by their government’s 85 percent rule. You will see many Australian wines with labels such as cabernet/shiraz, cabernet/merlot, semillon/chardonnay, grenache/shiraz.

The grapes are listed on the label in order of relative proportion. Washington is one of the few states to list the blends of grapes on the label. For instance, all the major Washington wineries make a cabernet/merlot.

But what is the most impressive — and most expensive — of blends? The highly touted and relatively rare “super Tuscans.” The lore behind the creation of the super Tuscan is that Italian winemakers felt constricted by the government regulations.

For instance, a wine labeled Chianti must have a predominance of sangiovese grapes. Winemakers wanted to use some “foreign” grapes such as cabernet sauvignon and merlot, which were viewed as French grapes. These wines that didn’t fit Italian government rules would have been labeled vino di tavola which translates to wine of the table: the cheapest, most lowly wine. So someone came up with the name “super Tuscan.”

While Italian wines collectively tend to be acidic, dry, light-to-medium bodied and subdued in flavor and aroma, the super Tuscans with the addition of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, sometimes syrah, become hefty, fruity, smooth and aromatic. We brought a 1997 (a hallmark year in Italy) Sassicaia to an Italian-themed dinner two weeks ago. It was a show stopper with layers of flavor and deep fruit.

The actual name “super Tuscan” does not appear on the label. Various wineries have created their own names for their unique blends: Antinori Winery has Solaia (cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and sangiovese) and Tignanello (cabernet sauvignon and sangiovese). There are also Sassicaia, (cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc) and Orneilla, (cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc).

My husband had a fun argument with the waiter at the Frescobaldi Wine Bar in Florence, Italy. The waiter feigned dismay, saying that the Italians would not have to make super Tuscans if the Americans would not buy them. My husband countered that the Americans would not buy them if the Italians would not make them!

Blending balances flavors, acid and tannin levels. Blending two or more good wines can make an excellent wine. However, a good wine cannot be made by blending a bad wine with a good one.

Winemakers have been blending different grapes for years, but we haven’t seen the blends highlighted on the label until recently. The French have been traditionally blending in the Bordeaux region, primarily cabernet sauvignon and merlot with smaller proportions of cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec. Some of those French blended wines, including Mouton Rothschild, Petrus and Margaux, command high prices too — often several hundred dollars upon release.

As a marketing idea, a U.S.winery trade group decided in 1988 that Bordeaux-inspired domestic blends should be identified by the invented name “Meritage” (rhymes with heritage). The red wines are the same grapes that the French use in Bordeaux.

The idea is to be take advantage of the classy image of Bordeaux, producing exceptional wines at exceptional prices. Wineries pay one dollar per case with a maximum of $500 yearly to use the trade-marked “Meritage” name. The Meritage idea has had limited success, basically because much of the wine-buying public is unaware of the program at all and probably cares even less.

Another thought: frequently you will have two wines open at home, and perhaps neither is great. Try blending them! Do not think of them necessarily as finished products which are sacrosanct. You’re the boss! We’ve blended wines at home and truly made a delicious product.


Super Tuscans:

Antinori Guado al Tasso, $80

Antinori Solaia, $160

Orneilla, $143

Sassicaia, $190

Recommended Blends

I was impressed to see that all the grape percentages were listed on the labels. The wineries are truly educating the consumer.

From Australia:

Rosemount grenache/syrah, $7; 58 percent Grenache, 42 percent shiraz.

Jacob’s Creek 2003 cabernet/shiraz, $6; 91/100 Wine Spectator

From Washington State:

Hedges CMS cabernet/merlot/syrah (Washington), $11; 47 percent cabernet sauvignon, 48 percent merlot, 3 percent syrah, 2 percent cabernet franc.

Columbia Crest merlot/cabernet (Washington), $7; 27 percent cabernet sauvignon, 53 percent merlot, 2 percent cabernet franc

Hogue Cellars cabernet/merlot (Washington), $7; 51 percent cabernet sauvignon, 47 percent merlot, 2 percent cabernet franc.

Barnard-Griffin cabernet/merlot (Washington), $9; 60 percent cabernet sauvignon, 40 percent merlot.

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