Blend it like Bordeaux
Hudson Valley winemakers craft “one from many”
J. Stephen Casscles
Previously, I have written on wines made from single
grape varieties such as Baco Noir, Chelois, and Seyval
Blanc, among others. So instead, this column will be
devoted to blended red wines made in the Hudson Valley.
This is a subject near and dear to my heart because I
believe that most superior red and white wines, whether
made in the Hudson Valley or elsewhere, are in fact
blended wines that consist of two or more grape varieties.
The reason for the heightened quality of a blended red wine, in my opinion, is due to the fact that wine made from a single grape variety will not always have the same depth, breadth, balance, integration, and character of a blended wine. In other words, blending can help to minimize the potential shortcomings that an individual grape variety possesses, if they were made as single varietal wines. For instance, wine made from only one grape varietal may have a great nose, but finish short; have great tannin structure, but lack the fruit needed to sustain such a firm wine; or it may have a great front and finish, but lack an appropriate middle to balance the wine.
Well, you get my point – blending different red and even white grape varieties into one red blend can make the wine more unified, integrated, fuller, balanced, increase its aging potential, and thus be more acceptable to a wider range of consumers.
Many wine drinkers do not realize that most quality red wines are indeed blended wines: A red Bordeaux, made from grapes grown in the Bordeaux region of France, is a wine that contains either a majority of Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, and lesser, but still substantial, amounts of other red grape varieties such as Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and/or Petit Verdot.
Another example are the red Chiantis, produced in the Chianti area of Tuscany, Italy, which contain at least 80 percent of the Sangiovese grape, but can also include up to up to 10 percent Canaiolo, and even up to 20 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Syrah. And, in Hungary’s Eger district which is famous for its red blend Egri Bikavér, at least three of their 13 traditional grape varieties, which includes Kekfrancos (Blaufrankisch), Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Pinot Noir, must be a component.
Not convinced? Well, even the mighty red Burgundy wines, made exclusively from Pinot Noir, are blended wines. While all great red Burgundies from the Côte-d’Or are made from Pinot Noir, different clones of Pinot Noir are used – some Pinot clones have fun noses and bright flavors, others a more firm tannin structure, and others still simply add more color to the wine.
The most extensive use of blending occurs in the making of red Rhônes. These wines, made in the Rhône Valley of Southern France, can contain up to 10 different grape varieties. And the blends change depending on where they are grown – be it a northern or a southern Rhône wine. The red grapes include primarily Syrah and Grenache, but can also include such varieties as Picpoul, Bourboulenc, Clairette, Cinsault, and Mourvèdre. The wines produced in this region can result in huge, jammy tannic bombs which can sometimes be too big even for those who like big red Rhônes. So, to address this issue, Rhône winemakers will at times blend in white wines to soften up these huge wines and make them more approachable. The white wine grapes of Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne, and Ugni Blanc, grown in the Rhône, are generally used.
These few examples of red and white grapes used in the creation of world-famous red blends should lend credence to the position that blended red wines are not only quality wines, but often, superior red wines.
Unfortunately, in the United States, after 1965, there was a movement that shifted away from producing blended red wines to producing single grape variety wines – those such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, etc. The feeling was (though not necessarily true) that American consumers wanted to know what they were drinking, so wines were produced and marketed as single variety wines – hence the “varietals.” I suppose one can equate it to the desire to know all the detailed ingredients in food products or even cosmetics and bath and body products.
By the 1980s, the so-called “fighting varietals” – inexpensive wine in oversized bottles made from one variety of grape and labeled as such – were all the rage in the domestic wine market. Further, the wine industry still believed that consumers were rejecting blended reds because they felt they were being “lied to,” and that low quality bulk grapes were being added to devalue the quality of the wine. This predisposition against blended wines was actually embodied in a state law in California which required that a wine, labeled as a varietal wine, had to contain at least 95 percent of the grape variety listed.
Under New York State law, however, the percentage was lower – only 75 percent of the listed grape must be included in the varietal wine. Thus different grape varieties (both red and white) could be added to the varietal wine to increase its quality, as long as the blended percentage remained under 25 percent. The reason for this lower percentage was no doubt based on New York’s long history of winemaking and the recognition within the state that while varietal wines sold better because they are perceived as being better, blended wines still tend to be of higher quality.
This was evidenced too by the higher production of blended wines in New York; in the Hudson Valley, because of its history of using grape varieties that were not as well known as their California counterparts, there was not as much pressure to make and sell wines under any single varietal name. By the ‘80s Hudson Valley wineries such as Brotherhood, Benmarl, and Brimstone all made “varietals” (such as Baco, Chambourcin, Chelois and DeChaunac), but added other reds and white varieties to make these wines more full-bodied and more interesting.
Slowly, by the early ‘90s the California wine industry, lead by Robert Mondavi and by the Meritage Association, went back to the roots of traditional European winemaking, which encouraged the blending of separate grape varieties into one unified, blended product. As a result, consumer perception gradually changed, and it now seems that we have finally come back full circle to viewing red blends as capable of producing superior wines.
Wine makers in the Hudson Valley have had a long history of blending red wines. When sampling some of our valley’s reds, here are a few thoughts and considerations utilized by winemakers behind the popular reds: while Baco Noir has a lovely berry, black raspberry, and cherry nose, it tends to have very high tartaric and malic acid levels that give the wine’s middle more presence than is warranted. To balance Baco’s high acidic levels, lower-acid red and white wines might be added. For some, Cabernet Sauvignon can be a much-too-big and heavy tannic wine. To lighten a Cabernet, adding Chelois, Baco, or DeChaunac will soften such wines. DeChaunac, if not made properly, can be flabby and dank. To remedy this, adding high-acid Baco Noir or Marechal Foch, with a bright berry nose and finish, can help round out the flabbiness of DeChaunac. And new, popular varieties such as Chancellor and Noiret can be one-dimensional, with overtones of cooked prunes; to counter-balance these grape’s tendencies, white wines such as Seyval Blanc can be added to give the Chancellor and Noiret more dimension.
These are just a few of the practical considerations and examples of how blending different varietals into one wine can diminish faults of the one variety, and increase the overall quality of the blend. Just as the motto on the U.S. seal is “E pluribus unum” – “Out of many, one” – so the same can be said of the advantages of blending red wines: the sum can be greater than its component parts.
I invite you to visit a Hudson Valley winery or wine shop that sells local wines and inquire about their blended red wines, the grape varieties used, and how the wine was made. Also, ask what the winemaker intended to achieve by making a certain blend. The answers you receive may help to teach you a lot about winemaking process, the philosophy of the wine maker and above all the superiority of blended wines. •
Articles are adapted from the forthcoming book “Grapes of the Hudson Valley” by J. Stephen Casscles. In future issues of Hudson Valley Wine Magazine, we’ll continue to feature additional excerpts from this definitive work on regional varietals culled from decades of the author’s tasting notes and personal experience.