Believe it or not, it's been four decades since Robert Mondavi and American wine producers began popularizing the notion of drinking varietal wine. Striking a blow for simplicity and straight forward wine consumption, Mondavi and a handful of New World contemporaries focused on a series of single grape varieties, catapulting “varietal” wine to near cult status.
It wasn’t only America that was busy searching for the flavour of the month. Australia, Spain, Chile, Italy, South Africa, Portugal and, more recently, Canada have all had their moments. In fact, each has played an important role in tinkering with the style of wine we all drink today.
But there’s more to wine than one can extract from a single grape, which brings us to today’s topic: blended red wine. Winemakers have been blending grapes for centuries, inspired no doubt by the first grower to lose an entire crop of merlot or cabernet sauvignon to an uncontrollable natural disaster, such as rain or mould or hail. It doesn’t take much to wipe out a crop.
Today, modern wine growers turn to blends to reduce that risk and in many cases make a wine that is superior to its mono-varietal cousins. Blending can increase complexity and balance and often, more practically, cover up faults as they relate to individual varieties or vintages — smoothing out edges, softening tannins, taming bitter notes and much more. Many believe the resulting blend or whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Blended wine, once incomprehensible to the average consumer is a concept more easily embraced as we step pass the mono-varietal world into the depth and complexity of a blended wine universe. Ergo the comeback, so to speak, of Rioja, (made with tempranillo, graciano, and mazuelo) and new Spanish blends involving grenache cabernet and tempranillo. Then there’s the return of Bordeaux and its imitators made with ever sophisticated varying mixes of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot) or Châteauneuf-du-Pape, for that matter, and its syrah, grenache, mourvèdre, counoise and cinsault grapes that can be joined by as many as eight other varieties. All point toward consumer readiness.
Nowhere is the rush to blend more advanced than when the key ingredient is cabernet sauvignon. Seemingly born to be blended, cabernet sports a trio of admirable attributes, namely color, tannin and acid. It is these characteristics that give it the ability to be softened with the likes of merlot and/or cabernet franc, as is the case in Bordeaux, or to be used as a hardener to firm up the soft underbelly of grapes such as Australia’s shiraz or Spain’s tempranillo. Of course, the other aspect to blending is its ability to stretch a scarce resource while at the same time keeping shelf prices reasonable.