A lady who drinks the occasional glass of wine and partakes only when deemed socially necessary asked me an unlikely question the other day. “Can you really tell the difference between wine made with one type of grape versus another which is a blend of two or more?” She then continued, “Because it all tastes exactly the same to me.”
Her tone and apparent need for a debate lead me to believe that she likely drinks cheap do-it-yourself plonk or vino à la crate aka. wine in a box. More concerning however, was that if she upholds this sort of opinion, perhaps others do as well.
The rant continued for a few minutes as I began to ponder my options for a convincing explanation. While her question may have been somewhat primary in nature and my answer potentially sarcastic, my actual response went something like this…
“Do you like apples?”
“Of course I like apples.” she snapped back, “Who doesn’t like apples?”
“Well,” I replied, “I know several people who find Granny Smith apples much too sour.”
“Yes, I think they are very sour as well. I’d much rather eat a Macintosh or Delicious Red.” she stated with confidence.
“What about applesauce; do you make applesauce?” I continued tactfully.
“No, I have no time or that,” rather sharply, ” If I need applesauce, I just buy a bottle at the grocery store.”
“The reason I ask, is that I understand the secret to making superb applesauce is to use a combination of different apples in the pot.” I continued to explain, “The proportion of each variety adds its own character to the blend. Furthermore, if you scorch the sauce ever-so-slightly while stirring the pot, you create a nice caramelized flavour.”
She stared for an uncomfortable amount of time before replying, “That actually sounds delicious, but you’re not really talking about apples, are you?”
To address the topic further, let’s ask the question again with a greater degree of focus: ’Why is so much emphasis placed on the grape variety and what determines which grapes go into a blended wine?’
It is fascinating to note that historically the grape variety was neither promoted nor published on the label. Europeans typically bought Chianti, Burgundy, or Chablis; opting occasionally for wine from the Rhine, Bordeaux, or perhaps a bottle of Rioja. Only in relatively recent times have varietal wines – those made with 85% or more of a single grape variety – expressed that information on the label. By the mid 1930s, a new trend and curiosity among North American consumers had producers labeling their bottles with the name of the grapes that made up the wine. Otherwise, blending information was not readily available.
Aside from the individual flavour and aroma profile that each grape variety imparts to the wine, the need to blend remains a crucial factor in cool climate regions. Take the case of Cabernet Sauvignon versus Merlot in the legendary French region of Bordeaux. The softer and more fruit forward tasting Merlot grape ripens earlier in the season than the bolder Cabernet and therefore in cooler years, the ‘Bordeaux blend’ tends to be higher in Merlot concentration. Combining different varieties can compensate for excessive (or lack of) acidity and even top up the weight of thinner bodied wines. In more temperate climates, under-ripening is normally not as critical from one vintage to the next, but rather the degree of alcohol due to the high brix (sugar content) often becomes concerning. Blending can also control excessive alcohol which will contribute to a more balanced wine.
While the exact proportion of each variety is rarely indicated on the bottle, the producer’s website will often provide interesting facts relating to each of their products, including the grape composition. Think of it as a list of ingredients… which incidentally may be coming to wine labels sooner than later.
You might consider the following list of varietal characteristics when shopping for your next bottle of wine.
- Cabernet Sauvignon – blackberry, cedar, eucalypyus, green bell pepper, tobacco leaf
- Syrah/Shiraz – rich dark berry, chocolate/espresso, licorice, black pepper spice
- Merlot – blackcurrant, plum, black cherry, nutmeg, occasionally smokey
- Cabernet Franc – wild berry, violets, bell pepper, licorice, flint, tobacco leaf
- Petit Verdot – blackberry, pencil lead, molasses sweetness, violets
- Sangiovese – red fruit – cherry, cinnamon, earthy, clove herb
- Grenache – black fruit, smoke, pepper
- Riesling – lemon, grapefruit, an interesting petrol/oilskin scent with age
- Gewürztraminer – lychee, floral, clove, apricot
- Viognier – pear, perfume and spice
- Chardonnay – buttery/melon with oak; flinty with fresh apples without
Exactly ‘why’ individual grape varieties express different characteristics is a complex discussion of chemistry and genetics. We will touch on the explanation by stating that a grape’s individuality has much to do with its history and ability to adapt to new surroundings. For centuries, plants have naturally self-adjusted for environmental factors when relocated to a foreign land. By mutating their own chemical and physical composition, grape vines compensate for changes in the environment in which they are forced to endure. Curiously, the more you stress the vine, the deeper its root structure burrows into the ground in search of essential nutrients. The result is fruit with more character which has the potential to produce wines of greater complexity and individual personality.
As for my applesauce acquaintance, she thanked me for the explanation and then asked for a list of wines that I thought might demonstrate the difference between one grape variety and the next. My work here is done.
Tags: blending wines