For a long time, people didn’t concern themselves with which grape varieties went into the wine in their glass. It was a wine from Moulis-en-Medoc, say, or Cotes du Ventoux, or Chianti, so that’s what it was.
Then along came New World winemakers with their emphasis on grape varieties, leading to a newfangled thing called the “varietal wine” – a wine identified by its dominant grape variety. Thus: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Zinfandel and all the rest.
But just as appellation-named and varietal wines have came to coexist more or less comfortably in the marketplace, we’re seeing a trend toward something not exactly new, but certainly a little confusing: the blend.
Take the protea Red. It’s from South Africa, and proudly so, but doesn’t really identify itself by a place. And yet there’s also no grape name emblazoned across the bottle. So what is it? It’s a blend, a wine made from blending together the juice from two or more grape varieties.
You might say blended wines are a closer relative of appellation-labeled wines than they are of varietals, since many appellations by their rules encourage the use of several grapes and thus are in practice blends. For instance, in the French appellation Gigondas, Grenache is the principal variety – but the grape can constitute no more than 80 percent of the blend, and Syrah and Mourvedre must together comprise three-quarters of the remaining portion.
And yet varietal wines, as well, are actually quite often blends. In California, the wine region where it could be said the varietal wine was born, a wine can don a specific grape name even when the dominant variety makes up just 75 percent of the blend. So that “Merlot” that strikes you as unusually dark and tannic? That could be the 25 percent Cabernet talking.
Back in the day, blended wines were made in the field – a vineyard might be planted to several grape varieties, known or unknown, and they all went in the fermentation vat together. You still see some of these “field blends,” but more commonly winemakers now carefully select a little of this and a little of that to create a wine that hits a specific and consistent flavor profile.
The protea Red now on the market is dominated by Bordeaux varieties, with 65 percent of the blend Cabernet Sauvignon and 30 percent Merlot. But that only adds up to 95 percent. The rest? It’s Shiraz – a small amount, winemaker Dawie Botha acknowledges, but enough to “take the wine in an interesting different direction, with that plummy, smoky earth character that Shiraz has.”
With a blended wine that doesn’t carry the burden of a specific place name or grape variety, you can do that. There are no rules!