Monday, November 2, 2015

Blending and wine complexity

One of the DWCC15 sessions that I was excited to attend was titled Terroir in the Blend and was hosted by my good friend Simon Woolf and soon-to-be good friend Charles Metcalfe. I will further frame the issues that they raised in the session by elaborating on the issues of blending and complexity (this post; a concatenation of earleir works) plus terroir (and the multiplicity of discussions circulating around today as to exactly what it is and whether it even exists).

Wines have normally been classified as varietal or blends with the best old world representations of the former originating in Burgundy (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay), Rheingau/Mosel (Riesling), Langhe (Nebbiolo), and the Loire Valley (Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc) and the latter from Bordeaux, Rioja, Chianti, and Chateauneuf de Pape. Eben Sadie, a South African wine producer, sees climate as a key differentiator between the mono-varietals and blends (Jancis Robinson, The virtues of blending, Grapes grown in cool, continental climates hang longer on the vine and "there is time to build up interesting, terroir-derived" characteristics which are on display in the mono-vatrietal wines of the region. Warmer and maritime regions have shorter growing seasons and varietal wines from these regions tend to be "less interesting and nuanced" than wines made from blends.

There are a number of blending drivers, as indicated below. While varietal blends tend to dominate, blending can occur down to the single-variety, single-plot level where free-run and press juice are kept separate and then blended in a winemaker-determined proportion at a later date.

According to, complexity in wine is demonstrated by "multiple layers and nuances of bouquet and flavors that are formed mostly in mature wines because aging contributes to this attribute." Further, "complexity creates interest and often unfolds layer upon layer on the nose and in the mouth if the wine is at its peak. Compared to complex wines, other wines seem shallow or one-dimensional."

Benjamin Lewin MW illustrates this difference in his discussion of mono-varietal Cabernet Sauvignon versus Cab-dominated Bordeaux blends (Cabernet Sauvignon and its blending partners, Tong #15). According to Lewin, the mono-varietal Cabernet Sauvignon shows greater purity of fruit in its youth but is linear compared to the blend which exhibits a broader flavor spectrum.  A mono-varietal with two blending characteristics (free-run and pressed juice, let's say) will have less complexity potential than a two-variety blend which will exhibit dual-variety characteristics plus terroir characteristics associated with each. For a Bordeaux blend the potential is magnified.

But, according to Lewin, it is with age that the differences between the wines really appear. The mono-varietal Cabernet Sauvignon matures but the purity of fruit of its youth yields to austerity while the blend produces the "savory notes of tertiary development."

Eben Sadie views the New World's obsession with varietals as detrimental to progress on the complexity front as producers flit from varietal wine to varietal wine based on "fashion." Lewin sees a New World attitude typified by "blending is what you do only when the pure varietal wine wouldn't be good enough." They both view complexity as high on the desirability list and tightly (but not exclusively) linked to variety blends.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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