Blends becoming popular

Wine Press NorthwestDecember 19, 2013 

Ken Robertson 09

Ken Robertson

“Whenever I visit a winery or walk through a wine shop or grocery store, I’m seeing more and more red blends. What’s behind this trend?”

You’re correct in your observation. Without rushing out to try to count red blends, I’ll just offer a little evidence of their quality, popularity and ubiquity from Wine Press Northwest’s recent 2013 Platinum judging and from Great Northwest Wine’s 2013 Invitational Tasting.

As usual, Wine Press requested that wineries enter their gold medal-winning wines of the past year, and the competition drew 640 entries. Among them were 111 wines properly categorized as red blends of varying types. In other words, more than one out of six gold medal winners entered were red blends. They included Bordeaux-styled and Rhone-styled blends for the most part, but also a group the industry calls Super Tuscan-style wines and what some have come to call Washington-styled (or perhaps Northwest-styled) blends.

Two weeks later at the inaugural GNW’s Invitational Competition, a panel of 12 wine professionals judged in a blind tasting 251 wines, including 43 red blends. All entries had been nominated for the competition by the same 12 people. Again, red blends comprised roughly one sixth of the wines.

The two competitions confirm that many of of our red blends are of high quality, though not necessarily high price. While the price of some surpassed $80, others cost as little as $14.

Both competitions included a broad array of styles, which are worth some explanation. Bordeaux-styled wines generally are made from a mix that includes at least two of the classic grapes of that region of France — Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. Rhone-styled generally includes so-called GSM blends — Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre — plus at times one of the classic white wine grapes of the region, Viognier.

Super Tuscan is a blending innovation credited to the Tuscany region of Italy, where winemakers who wanted to improve their red wines in the 1970s began adding Cabernet Sauvignon to the region’s predominant grape, Sangiovese. Ultimately, Super Tuscan has come to mean a top-quality, high-priced Italian red, usually a blend although not always, that may be made from one or more of the following: Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Petit Verdot.

In the Northwest, we discovered the Italians were onto something by not limiting their blending to the red wine grapes of either Rhone or Bordeaux. Syrah, winemakers soon learned, was more than a single-varietal blessing. It admirably filled that embarrassing mid-palate “hole” that Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot sometimes leave in a red blend. The combination of Syrah with those two grapes, plus perhaps a jot of another red variety or two, fit seamlessly into a complete, supple, complex wine.

Blending to create improved wine is probably as old as winemaking and wines, but when the Northwest wine industry began to find its footing back in the mid-1970s, single-varietal wines were all the rage in California. And the Northwest generally looked to California practices and borrowed many of its early winemakers as our region began to recreate an industry that had been killed by Prohibition. The generally accepted path to quality wine at the time was considered to be turning out the best Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon or whatever else a winery planned to produce was by growing or contracting for the best grapes of a single variety and then focusing all efforts on making a wine composed 100 percent of that varietal.

For a time, our region’s early red blends tended to be and often were looked upon as inferior wines developed to dispose of wine that wasn’t suited to use in premium-level wines. Gradually that changed as winemakers looked more to France and Italy for ideas, as they began to experiment on their own.

And a surprising thing also happened. Those “bargain” blends often turned out to be really quite nice, especially for the price. And winemakers started to step up the quality. Chateau Ste. Michelle’s old Stimson Lane wines produced in 1.5-liter bottles were renowned as bargain-priced and excellent quality. Barnard Griffin Winery created a Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot blend (which now includes Cabernet Franc as well, sometimes as much as 29 percent) and which has become one of the winery’s top-sellers. Its current winery price is $14, but it’s often seen in supermarkets for $10-$11.

In addition, there remained a cadre of winemakers who didn’t buy into the concept that single varietal wines were the sole answer to high quality. And in 1988, starting out in the Napa Valley, a group of winemakers frustrated with changing rules over how French wine terms such as Bordeaux and Rhone were being regulated, formed the Meritage Association, which has since become the Meritage Alliance. (Which, by the way, rhymes with heritage.) The aim was to promote creation of high-quality, Bordeaux-style red blends using the traditional grapes of Bordeaux. It has grown to nearly 350 members.

Wine Word: Claret

For once, the English get credit for a word from the world of wine. Originally, it referred to the red wines of Bordeaux, even though its roots go back to French (clairet) and, even farther back, Latin (clarus) mean clear, shining or bright. That has led some to suggest the term actually was first applied to white wines, but may not be so. An aged red, whether from Bordeaux or elsewhere, drops out its darker colors, becoming brighter and lighter after time in the cellar. In the Northwest, it’s been adopted by several wineries as a name for their red blends.

--Ken Robertson, the retired editor of the Tri-City Herald, has been sipping Northwest wines and writing about them since 1976.

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