Blended wines feature variety and distinctiveness to suit all palettes
By DEE HITCH
Mercer Island Reporter Columnist
February 3, 2010 · Updated 3:07 PM
While I notice many consumers have learned that blended wines are not inferior wines, I still see that some almost wrinkle their noses when they see blends. I think they assume that blends are leftover scraps instead of the careful, thoughtful steps formulated by the winemaker.
By blends, I am referring to wines labeled cabernet/merlot or cabernet/shiraz, not just cabernet sauvignon or merlot. Some are just labeled red; others are labeled meritage. In the United States, a wine must have 75 percent of one grape to be labeled with only that grape’s name. In Australia, it is 85 percent.
The Australians were the first to market blends and name them on the label, and it could be that they felt restricted by their government’s 85 percent law. You will see many Australian wines with labels such as cabernet/shiraz, cabernet/merlot, semillon/chardonnay and 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.
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.
In November, I enjoyed the fun opportunity of taking the five wines which make up Chateau St. Jean’s Cinq Cepages and trying to duplicate the final blend. “Cinq Cepages” translates to five grapes. I first tasted the actual Cinq Cepages. There were five bottles of each wine on the table: cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, malbec, merlot and petit verdot. The challenge was to replicate.
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 — Mouton Rothschild, Petrus, Margaux — command high prices, too; often, several hundred dollars upon release.
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.” The red wines are the same grapes that the French use in Bordeaux. The idea is to 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 trademarked “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 that you have opened at home. Try blending them. Do not think of them necessarily as finished products that are sacrosanct. You’re the boss! We’ve blended wines at home and truly made a delicious product.
But among the most impressive 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. They 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 and sometimes syrah — become hefty, fruity, smooth and aromatic. We brought a 1997 (a hallmark year in Italy) Sassicaia at an Italian-themed dinner. It was a show stopper with layers of flavor and deep fruit.
Various Italian 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 is also Sassicaia (cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc) and Orneilla (cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc).
I was impressed to see that the grapes used in the blends are usually listed on either the front or back label. Even better, percentages are often given. The wineries are truly educating the consumer.
From Washington state:
L’Ecole 2006 Perigee: $50
56% cabernet sauvignon, 34% merlot, 10% cabernet franc.
L’Ecole 2006 Apogee: $50
46% cabernet sauvignon, 8% malbec, 4% cabernet franc.
Hedges 2008 CMS: $11
46% cabernet sauvignon 48% merlot, 6% syrah.
Kennedy Shah: $10
Malbec, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit verdot, tempranillo.
Magnificent 2007 House Red: $10
32% cabernet sauvignon, 31% syrah, 30% merlot, 3% malbec, 2% zinfandel, 1% cabernet franc, 1% petit verdot.
Mercer Island 2005 Intrigue: $20
No, there is not a winery on Mercer Island. Northwest Cellars does the blending, and just like a vanity license plate, you can do a vanity label. This wine received 90/100 from Wine & Spirits and is available only at the North Mercer QFC. 50% merlot, 28% syrah, 16% cabernet sauvignon, 4% cabernet franc, 2% petit verdot.
Cain 2004 Five: $120
47% cabernet sauvignon, 25% merlot, 21% cabernet franc, 4% petit verdot, 3% malbec.
Chateau St. Jean 2006 Cinq Cepages:
Cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, malbec, merlot, petit verdot.
Menage a Trois 2008 red: $10
Cabernet sauvignon, merlot, zinfandel.
Antonio Sanguineti Nessun Dorma: $14
50% sangiovese, 30% merlot, 20% syrah.
Willamette Valley Wineries’ first visit to Seattle: 5:30-8:30 p.m., May 11.
Designed to introduce Oregon’s celebrated Willamette Valley wine region to its Seattle neighbors, the Willamette Valley Wineries Association will host its first local consumer and trade tasting. Labeled “The Willamette Valley Wineries Block Party,” over 50 Oregon wineries will pour their current releases in Sodo Park by the Herban Feast, one mile south of Safeco Field. Pinot noir will be the primary wine at the event, but other cool-climate varietals will be poured, such as pinot gris, chardonnay and riesling. Each winery will be represented by its winemaker, owner or an integral member of its team, providing guests with an opportunity to get acquainted with both the story and the wine behind each brand. Visit willamettewines.com for tickets.
Kudos to Chateau Ste. Michelle Estates
Congratulations to Chateau Ste. Michelle Estates. Columbia Crest 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon was number one in Wine Spectator’s Annual Top 100 Wines. In a blind tasting against 17,000 contenders, Columbia Crest won the coveted spot and is the first Washington wine to take first place. Two other Chateau Ste. Michelle Estate wines were also in the Top 100: Chateau Ste. Michelle Canoe Ridge 2006 cabernet sauvignon and Spring Valley 2006 Uriah.
Dee Hitch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Contact Mercer Island Reporter Columnist Dee Hitch at email@example.com.