Historically, most Old World wine (i.e., wine from Europe) was blended for practical reasons. Farmers often replaced dead vines in vineyards with other varietals, and as time went by, vineyards would be planted with a few varietals and farmers often didn’t know which was which. They harvested all the grapes at the same time and fermented them together, so the resulting wine was always a blend. This was called a field blend because the different grapes were already blended in vineyards before they were turned into wine.
In Bordeaux, blending was like insurance. Merlot is used to soften the aggressive tannin of Cabernet Sauvignon, but more importantly, these two grape varieties have different ripening times. Cabernet Sauvignon ripens late, so in cooler years when Cabernet Sauvignon cannot not properly ripen, winemakers still have Merlot to make the wine. Obviously, the blend changed every year and the vintage variations were significant.
The UK was the biggest market of Bordeaux wine, and consumers would only know where the wine originated, without any idea of the grape varieties and their percentages. The inconsistency of this wine confused consumers even more. At that time, New World winemakers, led by Australia, were looking to export to the UK and were recommended to make a reliable, consistent wine each year. They made 100% single-varietal wines and stated the grape names on the labels. Consumers loved them, and when other New World wine countries entered the UK market, they all focused on single-varietal wines.
That was history, and today winemakers from most regions are making both single-varietal and blended wines. Each wine has its own merits.
Single-varietal wine allows us to understand the characteristics of each variety. The parent of Cabernet Sauvignon is Cabernet Franc, but the former is more structured and darker in colour with black fruit notes, while the latter is more feminine, lighter in colour and more fragrant with red fruit aromas. Merlot is rounder and softer on the palate with plum and chocolate notes. These three varietals are components of a Bordeaux blend, and by tasting them separately, we can see why they complement each other.
Single-varietal wine also helps us to see how climate and winemaking techniques affect the final wine. A Shiraz from the warm-climate Barossa Valley in Australia is rich and jammy, but its counterpart in cooler Hawkes Bay in New Zealand has a distinctive white pepper nose. Similarly, Chablis from France, which is 100% Chardonnay, has lower alcohol and a citrus aroma, while the same Chardonnay grown in Napa in the US has much higher alcohol and a buttery palate because Napa is warmer and the winemakers there prefer to use new oak to age their Chardonnay.
Winemakers blend wine because the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Take Bordeaux as an example. Cabernet Sauvignon can be austere, especially when young, but Merlot can mellow the structure and provide a rounder mouthfeel, while Cabernet Franc adds a touch of elegance to the wine. A Bordeaux white blend – Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc – is another example of 1+1=3. These Bordeaux blends are classic examples of synergy and are made in all New World wine-producing countries.
Old World wine regions have regulations that restrict the blending possibilities. The red grapes permitted in Rioja in Spain are Tempranillo, Graciano and Mazuelo, so Rioja red wine can only be a blend of these three varieties and winemakers cannot include, say, Shiraz in the blend.
In the New World, there are no regulations, and winemakers often experiment with everything under the sun. South Africa is particularly innovative when it comes to blending. The Spier Creative Block range is made up of blends, and the numbers after the names denote the number of varietals in each blend. For instance, Creative Block 2 is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, while Creative Block 8 is a blend of eight varieties. South African white blends from Chenin Blanc, Roussanne, Marsanne, Chardonnay, Clariette Blanche and so on are gaining international reputations.
In fact, some wines that state only one variety on the label may consist of a small proportion of other grape varieties. In the US, a wine can be labeled as a single varietal if it consists of only 75% of a grape variety, while in South Africa and Australia, the minimum is 85%.
Single-varietal wine is about the expression of the variety, while blended wine has the added skills of winemakers. The choice is completely yours!
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