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Is it a cab or a merlot? Check the back label - Details of blending wine varietals disclosed more

By Dee Hitch

Wine Tips

A winemaker has many choices. What type of oak barrels should he used, if any? American, French, Yugoslavian? Small or large. New barrels or old barrels, or a combination? How should grapes from different vineyard sites be combined? Should some be kept separated until bottling? And finally, should a wine contain more than a single variety of grape?

Blending -- where all of these issues are considered -- is the last chance for the winemaker to influence the final product. 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.

When selecting a wine, most of us think about a specific varietal like cabernet sauvignon or merlot and we ignore blends of varietals, believing that they are of lower quality. By law a domestic wine can be labeled with a single varietal name even if it contains as much as 25 percent of other varietals. This means that a blend of 75 percent cabernet sauvignon and 25 percent merlot could be labeled either cabernet sauvignon or cabernet/merlot. The back labels of the wine will often disclose details of the blend.

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 routinely blending in the Bordeaux region, primarily cabernet sauvignon and merlot with smaller proportions of cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec.

As a marketing idea, a U.S.winery trade group in 1988 decided that Bordeaux-inspired domestic blends should be identified by the invented name ``Meritage'' (rhymes with heritage). The red wines in America must use the same grapes the French use in Bordeaux to receive that label. The idea was to take advantage of the classy image of Bordeaux, and produce exceptional wines at exceptional prices, which hasn't happened in all cases. Wineries pay a dollar a case with a maximum of $500 yearly to use the trademarked ``Meritage'' name. Meritage has had limited success, because much of the wine-buying public has not embraced the program.

Australian wine regulations are different from ours and require that wine labels show all grape varieties used in a wine unless one variety represents at least 85 percent of the total blend. For that reason 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 the few states to list the blends of grapes on wine labels; all the major Washington wineries, for instance, make a cabernet/merlot.

Another thought: Frequently you will have two wines opened at home. Neither is great. Try blending them! Don't 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.

Recommended blends

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

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

? Rosemount grenache/syrah (Australia) $7: 58 percent grenache 42 percent shiraz.

? Rosemount semillon/

chardonnay (Australia) $7: 33 percent semillon, 67 percent chardonnay.

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

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

? Covey Run cabernet/merlot (Washington) $7: 43 percent cabernet sauvignon, 42 percent merlot, 15 percent cabernet franc.

A reminder now that summer is coming

Do not chill your white wines too much. Very cold temperatures hide many of their nuances. Remember when you have commented, ``Gee, this second glass of wine tastes better than the first.'' That is because the wine has had a chance to warm up a little. You often see people holding the bowl of their glass in their palm to warm the wine. If your white wine is completely chilled in the refrigerator, pull it out at least a half hour before drinking. There is even a movement among professionals to not chill at all. Remember the chilly, dank castle where wine was first enjoyed. It was cold, but not as cold as the inside of a refrigerator. Even reds can be slightly colder than room temperature. Just remember the castle!

Dee Hitch can be reached at rockypointlane@aol.com.

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