Creating a blend – a subtle art of wine

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The composition of a wine will not always include just one grape variety. In most cases, this will be a composition of two, three, four, and sometimes more Vitis Vinifera. And this is true not only for red, but also for white wines. But what is the interest for a winemaker to complicate his life and mix different varieties, while it would be ;ore si;ple to produce single-varietal cuvées? Let’s find out in this article.

What means the term “blend”

“Blend” in winemaking is a very important and almost inevitable process. By definition, it is a combination of two or more wines with different characteristics. Winemaker makes blends for different reasons:

  • Creating a specific drink style
  • Conformity to a certain standard and style consistency
  • Achieving the most complex bouquet and the best balance of wine by combinating different varieties
  • Hide imperfections of a wine

Technically, almost all wines represent a blend, to a greater of lesser extent. Usually, when making one and the same cuvée in several containers (barrels or vats) winemakers do not separate them into different cuvées according to the number of these containers. However, some containers can be set aside to make wine from grapes from a specific area with the best vines. Such cuvées will be bottled separatelly without blending with wines from other plots. By the way, selection of containers (barrels or vats) for a standard or premium cuvée (depending on how successful the vintage was) is part of the work of an oenologist or the so-called maître des chais.
An oenologist periodically (sometimes every day, for example, towards the end of alcoholic fermentation and during the maturation of wine in barrels) tastes the contents of vats and barrels, determining which of them to combine in a blend with other varieties, which ones should be left to mature longer and which should be reserved for premium cuvée.

Technique of blending

It is obvious that winemakers do not mix several vats at once with thousands of liters of wine without being sure that the result will meet their expectations. The first stage is blending of small volumes to determine the best combination. This combination can includeA:

  • Single-varietal wines from different, complementary varieties – in this case, the winemaker seeks to combine varieties and their proportions in the future cuvée in such a way that the advantages of one variety will compensate a particularity that lacks to another. The best example here is the Bordeaux blend of Merlot and two Cabernets – Sauvignon and Franc. Merlot in a typical Bordeaux blend adds body and fruity bouquet to a wine, Cabernet Sauvignon is responsible for tannins, structure and aging potential, and Cabernet Franc – for elegant floral notes and acidity. In addition, the wine combines several varieties also in cases where it is difficult to produce single-varietal cuvées due to the “vintage effect”, i.e. variability of weather conditions from year to year, when varieties ripen differently.
  • Wines obtained by “bleeding” the tank or from the press – in the production of red wines in a fermentation vat, grape juice is fermented and infused the hard part of the grapes – the skin, seeds, pulp and sometimes – stems. By At the end of fermentation, grape must is separated from the hard part (making up the main part of the cuvée), which is pressed to obtain the last drops of the finished must. Such must is highly astringent and serves to increase the level of tannins in the final cuvée.
  • Wines with different periods of aging – usually only premium cuvées made from exceptional grapes with rich body and powerful tannins that need to soften during barrel maturation, ages in 100% new barrels. More often wines are not aged in barrels at all, or they spend some period in barrels aged 1 or 2 years (i.e. in barrels that have already been used for aging once or twice). But winemakers don’t have to mature the entire cuvée in the same containers. One part of it may not be aged in barrels at all, the other part may ripen in new barriques, and the third in 1 year old barriques or in large oak containers – fudres. Clay amphorae are now in vogue and a part of a cuvée can be aged there. Moreover, in addition to oak, for example, acacia, cherry tree or chestnut can be used as material for barrels. As you can see, using different types of containers for maturing, you can achieve a very rich palette of aromas

Thus, the blend technique used depends on the style that the winemaker wants to achieve, and on the characteristics and quality of the grapes.

Coupage/”cutting” and blending

To begin with, in French wine terminology, the term “assemblage” or “blend” is used much more often than “coupage”. In my conversations with winemakers, I have never seen the use of the word “coupage”. In fact, the use of one or another term depends on the context – if we are talking about table wines without a geographical name, which can be a mixture of wines from different varieties, different regions and vintages, then the term “coupage” is used. The term “assemblage”/”blend” is used in winemaking when it comes to wines with an appellation. In this case, the rules are much stricter – to preserve the appellation, only wines of the same year, obtained from grapes grown in the territory of the appellation, can be blended.
It would not be superfluous to add that several centuries ago the term “cutting” meant the dilution of wine with water, and the modern French dictionary Larousse defines it as “mixing wines of different qualities to obtain a better and more homogeneous result.”

Illustration and tasting

It is not necessary to own vineyards or be a winemaker in order to understand the importance of blend. It is quite possible to arrange such an informative atelier at home. Vignobles Siozard, a 60-hectare estate, produces single-varietal cuvées from all the red varieties of Bordeaux:

  • Merlot
  • Cabernet Franc
  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Malbec
  • Petit Verdot
  • Carmenère

From such a variety, one can not only learn to identify the typical bouquet of each variety, but also try to compose a harmonious assemblage, characteristic of any part of the vast Bordeaux region.
For this purpose, the estate even produces a special set of single-varietal wines from three varieties and a special tool for assemblage. This is the set I recently tested. And here are some of my conclusions.

The set consisted of three single-varietal wines, from the varieties most common in Bordeaux:

  • Merlot sans Souffre ajouté 2019 (no added sulfites)
  • Cabernet Sauvignon 2019
  • Cabernet Franc 2018

I tried them individually and in several blends, in different proportions, and made some rather curious conclusions. The tasting notes will be somewhat shorter than usual, as the purpose of this exercise was not to analyze the combinations of wines and dishes, but the characteristics of grape varieties.

Colour: All three wines had about the same color, ruby ​​of medium intensity, but the Cabernet Sauvignon was still slightly darker than the Merlot and Cabernet Franc. This is due to the characteristic of the variety – its skin is the most thick, with the largest amount of pigments among these three varieties.

Merlot– medium intensity, the bouquet is dominated by notes of red berries (raspberries, red cherries, strawberries) with a slight hint of mint and strawberry jam
Cabernet Franc – medium (+) intensity and more various. The berries in the bouquet are not only red, but also black (red and black cherries, red currants, raspberries). In addition, the ensemble is complemented by aromas of flowers (violet) and dried herbs.
Cabernet Sauvignon – medium (+) intensity, with bright typical notes of black berries (blackcurrant – the aroma-marker of this variety, blackberry, black cherry, black plum stands out especially) and a hint of menthol

Merlot – medium (+) intensity, mainly fruity notes, slightly sweet, the same as its aromas (raspberry, red cherry, strawberry), but a delicate hint of pepper appears in the taste. Medium level tannins, body, alcohol level and length of finish, medium acidity (+). Tannins are a bit dry
Cabernet Franc – medium (+) intensity, the bouquet of flavors is the same as its aromas (red and black cherries, violet). Medium body and alcohol levels, medium (+) tannin levels and fairly smooth texture. However, its finish is medium (-)
Cabernet Sauvignon – medium (+) intensity, repeats the bouquet of black berry aromas (blackcurrant, black cherry, black plum). Medium/medium (+) body, medium alcohol, medium (+) tannins, dryish but balanced by the body and saturation of the wine, which translates into a medium (+) length of finish.

Comparison of three varieties

Merlotis considered the variety with the most juicy bouquet and round body and is responsible for the richness of the wine. However, the example from the set was the lightest and most delicate of the three wines, with the most noticeable acidity. This feature is explained by the climatic conditions of 2019. Overall, this vintage has been excellent for the region, with strong wine structure, good maturity and aging potential. But in some parts of the region, extended periods of heat have slowed the ripening of the grapes (which is a completely natural process for the vine, which, in conditions of drought and water stress, tends to survive rather than produce a crop). Perhaps that is why the Merlot from the set had such a profile.
The 2018 Cabernet Franc was the least fruity of the three, with herbs and flowers more prominent than sweet berries or jam. Its tannin level was comparable to Cabernet Sauvignon, but slightly superior to Merlot. Thus, the example from the set clearly represented what this variety serves in the Bordeaux assemblage:

  • In the wines of the Left Bank (Medoc, Pessac-Leognan, Graves) it is present in small quantities and complements the bouquet with subtle floral notes. Cabernet Sauvignon which performs well on gravel soils is responsible for the structure of tannins
  • In the wines of the Right Bank (Saint-Emilion, Pomerol, Fronsac), Cabernet Franc is responsible for the structure of tannins, acidity and freshness of the bouquet. It plays the same role that Cabernet Sauvignon in blends of the Left Bank, because the latter cannot fully mature on the calcareous-clay soils of the Right Bank

Cabernet Sauvignon seemed to me the most tart and structured, but also the most balanced of all three varieties. Again, using the example from the set, we can observe the role of this variety – it compleets Merlot in the Bordeaux blend. The bouquet and body of the wine in the middle of the taste sensations (i.e. during the tasting, after the first impression – “attack”, and its conclusion – the length of finish) seemed to be less expressive, empty, while Merlot’s saturation helps to fill them.

Examples of blends

With these three wines, you can experiment and create a variety of blends, starting with a combination of two varieties (Merlot + Cabernet Sauvignon for a typical left bank blend and Merlot + Cabernet Franc for the right bank) or all three and ending with a combination that, most likely, is not even you will meet in Bordeaux – Cabernet Sauvignon + Cabernet Franc. Here are my impressions of my experiments.

Merlot (70%) + Cabernet Franc (30%) is an example of a right bank blend. The result is quite light, with high acidity and a floral-fruity bouquet. But this assemblage lacked richness and body to balance acidity and astringency.
Merlot (70%) + Cabernet Sauvignon (30%) – a variant of blend for the left bank was be more balanced, thanks to Cabernet Sauvignon, which completed the lack of Merlot’s body and complemented the bouquet with mature notes
Merlot (1/3) + Cabernet Sauvignon (1/3) + Cabernet Franc (1/3) – in general, the combination should be quite balanced, with more pronounced fruit tones, longer finish, more complete bouquet and more integrated tannins. However, this combination was not the best among the blends that I tried. Thus, taking different varieties in equal parts does not mean, that you will definitely get something perfectly harmonious and exceptional.
Merlot + Cabernet Sauvignon + Cabernet Franc – in different proportions (20%, 50% and 30%, then 7%, 23% and 70%) the assemblage manifested itself differently. The second option was the most successful, where Cabernet Sauvignon gave the assemblage its richness and balance, Merlot added a touch of freshness and a high acidity, and Cabernet Franc added floral and herbal tones to the bouquet. The first option was also quite good, but less balanced.
Cabernet Sauvignon + Cabernet Franc is a pure experiment, and not with disappointing results. The wine was astringent due to the structure of the two varieties, but the concentration of Cabernet Sauvignon was just enough to balance out the tannin levels.

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