You know what –I don’t want to know. It doesn’t matter. I won’t waste time griping about, or trying to figure out who is to blame for, the current use of the wine term "Red Blend.”
About a month ago, when a guest at my work asked me whether we had any red blends, I answered earnestly and naïvely, pointing out a few wines – Chave Côtes-du-Rhône, Robert Sinskey P.O.V., and a Piedmontese nebbiolo/barbera – that qualified. The look I got was the one you get from a dog when you speak to him in long sentences: a titled head and pleading, expectant eyes just begging to hear something – anything – comprehensible come out of my mouth.
The worldly me of right now looks back on the obtuse me of a month ago and shakes his head. This guest, and the several who have asked the same question in the interim, did not want a red blend, but a Red Blend. She wanted a certain type of wine, not to hear how much of what was in what, or which grapes were lowercase-blended with one another. She just wanted a Red Blend.
First, let me explain my confusion by explaining the lowercase-blend. Many, perhaps most, wines are blended. By that, I mean that they are not single-varietal (e.g. 100% cabernet sauvignon) wines. This may come as a surprise to many wine consumers, as they are accustomed to seeing a single varietal listed in significant type on the front of the label (more on this in a minute). This is largely a phenomenon of wine’s New World, which is comprised of the wine-producing areas that are not located in Europe (meaning the Americas, NZ and Australia, and South Africa). That is one reason why wines from these areas are easy to navigate; you know what’s in them because it says it in English on the label.
In much of the world, blending is de rigeur. In France, blending is the rule in some of the world’s most prestigious wine regions: Champagne, Bordeaux, the Rhône – they’re all blend-happy regions. In fact, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which pioneered the wine production regulations that have served as a model for the entire world, originally permitted ten varietals, and later settled on thirteen (though one of the region's standard-bearers, Ch. Rayas, always makes a 100% grenache Châteauneuf). Of the most renowned areas, only Burgundy adheres to largely single-varietal traditions. Italy blends many reds and produces, along with Germany and Austria, some fantastic blended white wines. I’m sure you can understand my confusion; telling a sommelier you want a blend is like telling a car dealer you want something with windows – it rules out a thing or two, but it barely narrows your choices at all.
Without getting too into it, there are several ways to blend a wine. The first, and least common, is a field blend. This means that the grapes of different varietals are grown all together in the same vineyard, so when they get harvested they’re all tossed in together. If your vineyard is 60% zinfandel and 40% petite sirah and you harvest them together, well, the final blend of the wine is going to reflect that ratio. The various grape varietals, once they are harvested, are now one - vinified (made in to wine) together, together from birth to death.
Co-fermenting is a technique that can be used with grapes that were not raised in the same vineyard together – they can be grown and harvested in different places and at different times, but then tossed in the same vat to become wine together.
There’s a term, assemblage, for the production of wines that are blended, but whose components are all vinified separately. These wines, like the term implies, are assembled; the winemaker makes single-varietal wines – two barrels of cabernet sauvignon, one barrel of merlot, one barrel of cabernet franc, one barrel of petit verdot, say– and blends them together to make her final wine. This allows her to choose varietal wines for their individual characteristics and for their effect on the finished product. For that reason, the final blend may not reflect the fact that she started with 40% cabernet sauvignon and 20% of three other varietals. Maybe she pulls back on cab. sauv., or maybe she omits petit verdot altogether.
A 100% varietal wine is like a public high school football team; it’s gotta play with the kids living in the district. But a blend – that’s like the private school powerhouse that can recruit kids from far-flung locales to serve its offensive needs. A little thin on the herbaceous front? No problem – send an assistant coach to make the hundred-mile round trip to pick up some cab franc.
That is the benefit of blending: any characteristic you want in your wine, you can seek to add by adding a grape that boasts these virtues. It can also be a hedge of sorts; if one grape doesn’t do particularly well in a given vintage, you can compensate for its shortcomings with the strengths of another.
The dirty little not-so-secret is that your favorite single-varietal wine may itself be a blend. The United States Tax and Trade Bureau dictates that, in order to put a grape varietal on the label of a wine, the wine must contain at least 75% of that grape. That’s it. Some states, like with auto emissions or minimum wage, hold themselves to higher standards than those mandated by Uncle Sam, but the fact remains that your pinot noir might be pumped up with syrah, and as long as the producer complies with the law, the label doesn’t have to mention it at all. That’s why wines that actually do contain 100% of a certain varietal usually boast that fact on the back of the label. They went through the trouble, and they want you to know it.
As for the Red Blend, I don’t begrudge it its success. But this term, while notionally just a noncommittal labeling term, has come to represent ripe, juicy, and often dosed (with some sweetness, that is) red wines that tend to be incredibly pleasing to the novice palate. They are bursting with robust and supple grape varietals like zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, petite sirah, and usually lack tannin and pronounced acidity. They are jammy and relatively simple, maybe good for quaffing at a cookout but not too stimulating in other venues.
The success of wines like Apothic and Ménage à Trois have given unwitting consumers the idea that Red Blend is not, like table wine, a blanket term that allows for maximum versatility, but rather a specific style of wine. Right now that may be truer than I wish to admit, as this is a world shaped by the forces of commerce. But let's not forget that for centuries before the tyranny of the Red Blend - and for centuries after its certain demise - there was, and always will be, the noble red blend.