Mahler: The confusing world of red blendsWritten by Adam Mahler | | email@example.com
The hottest wine category right now is the “red blend.” Unfortunately, red blend is not exactly a precise description of a wine. In fact, that label could apply to more than 80 percent of all red wines out there. When pressed, many wine professionals even have a tough time drawing a line between what is and what isn’t a red blend, so let’s dig a bit deeper into the issue.
Wines are often referred to by the varieties or varietals of the grapes in the bottle. Common names you’ll recognize — cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay, pinot noir, etc. In the New World, this is how we typically label our wines. In the Old World, however, they label wines from their place of origin. The imported wines we are most accustomed to are from France and Italy, with some from Spain and Germany as well. Many, if not most, of the red wines from these countries are blends. It’s easier to mention the exception rather than the rule. While pinot noir, syrah and the wines from Piedmont are not blended (usually), almost everything else is or at least is allowed to be. Why the blending over there? Each additional grape brings something else to the wine. This adds to complexity and the layering of flavors. Some of the most famous wines are built to be blends — Bordeaux, Chianti, Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Each of these blends is governed by tradition and years of refinement that define what can go into those blends.
In the U.S., there is no law about what needs to be blended with what. The laws that govern labeling, however, do refer to some parameters.
For example, you can name a wine by a variety name, like cabernet sauvignon, as long as it has 75 percent of that grape in it — the other 25 percent can be whatever the winemakers want it to be. Often, with cabernet, they would blend it with merlot and cabernet Franc (among others).
So there you go, a red blend. Or is it? It’s labeled cabernet, but it’s a blend of three grapes. For sheer categorization’s sake, let’s say that wine is NOT a blend, but rather a cabernet. Not because of what’s in it technically, but because its style is built to be that of a cabernet. Don’t forget, blending often improves lesser grapes. Now think about your average wine shop or wine list. They organize the wines on their shelves by categories. Cabernet, chardonnay, French, etc., but there is a remainder, wines that don’t easily fit categories. So a new category was created: red blends.
Confused? Yeah, you should be. I’ll break red blends down into three categories to make life a little easier. First, there are the Old World referencing blends — these follow blend recipes from any place, but use grapes grown in the U.S. This would include Bordeaux blends, Rhône blends, Cal-Itals, etc.
Next, you have a second category that might be referred to as “playful crimes against nature.” They involve taking disparate varieties from disparate backgrounds and blending them together to see what you get. They’re great fun, unique and sometimes eye-opening.
Third, you have the field blend and its descendants. The field blend is a uniquely American thing. About 150 years ago, when California was still brand-new, many European (and specifically, Italian) immigrants settled there. Many of these relocated Italians found themselves working for The Italian Swiss Colony, a winery that employed immigrants. After 10 years, workers were given an opportunity to buy some land at a very reasonable price and given root stock to start their own vineyards. Many of those grapes were zinfandel and petite sirah. Because this was so early in California wine history, there was no rule, so these immigrants planted everything in the same vineyard without demarcating the varieties.
Now, 100-plus years later, many of those vines are still around. And some of those vines have benefited greatly from age. Since the varieties haven’t been distinguished from each other, they are all harvested and vinified together, thus the field blend. Stylistically, these wines are ripe and jammy, with blue and black fruit and relatively low alcohol. They drink great upon release and are easy to enjoy without food.
These old Italian field blends are largely driving the red blend explosion of the past decade. Now, many producers are emulating the field blend with properly defined varieties and blending them in the cellar, rather than in the field, but the result is the same. So, if you find yourself loving the red blend category, it is most likely the field blend version. Look for zinfandel- or petite sirah-based blends or even those grapes on their own. And try something new. Always try something new.
Adam Mahler is the founder of Ampelography, a wine sales and marketing company based in Toledo (ampelographywines.com). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can tweet wine pairing or wine shopping questions to @ampelography.