The Fine Art of Blending Wines

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The Fine Art of Blending Wines

When it comes to winemaking there are many aspects that make it the most wonderful job in the world. It is seasonal and every year is new, interesting, and challenging. There are also many enjoyable and rewarding moments, some of my favorites being working with - and hopefully inspiring - people. Winemaking is a creative and satisfying profession and the reasons for that are endless.

However, in winemaking there exists a dichotomy about wine blending (which has become most popular in the last few years) as it is one of the most rewarding endeavors but also one of the most difficult challenges. It is a very crucial and definitive process that if done correctly, takes 100% of the winemaker's attention. In such a critical moment wineries sometimes hire consultants and celebrity winemakers to help with the difficult decisions at hand and whose reputation can give a wine extra cachet.

To succeed at wine blending a winemaker must achieve a fine balance between being very opinionated while also being very open-minded and flexible. It also helps to have a clear vision of the finished product.

One of the things I like most about blending is finding and highlighting the fine nuances that complement one another. These make an enormous difference in improving the wine and making it more complex. In other words, the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. The aim is to make a more interesting wine by giving it more dimensions.

There are many ways to approach this. Most important is to follow the instinct you have slowly developed during the life of the wine - from the grapes in the vineyard to the aging in the cellar. Having watched the growing season, touched the grapes as they matured, tasted thousands of berries, measured the pH, acidity, and sugar, taken an average berry weight every 5 days for a 6 week period, and tasted constantly gives the winemaker a very good sense about the wine blend's quality and what it lacks or needs.

When an outside winemaker consults on such an intimate task, they are somewhat at a loss as they certainly lack the background and detailed information required to make a successful blend. However they have the advantage of having no preconceived notions and can bring a new perspective and aren't shy or lacking confidence in expressing that opinion.

The key to a successful blend (of course) is tasting, tasting, and tasting again. Bench trials are crucial and the winemaker is the judge. This way you can explore different ideas and check if your instincts are correct or if something needs to be adjusted. You certainly don't want to blend big quantities! Compare this to using salt in your kitchen - you can always add but afterwards you can't take it away.

What is always fascinating is how a small addition like 1% of a different wine can have a huge effect. Don't believe me? Again think of salt; not enough and the food is bland and even just a bit too much and it is unpalatable. The same is true with grapes.

As an example, the list that follows are the wine varieties (along with a short description) that are used to create a Merlot based red blend. This particular blend has its roots on the right Bank (Bordeaux, Saint-Émilion, and Pomerol):

  • Merlot – The Body – rich, soft, lush
  • Cabernet Franc – The Ballerina – aromatic, elegant, spicy
  • Cabernet Sauvignon – The Point Guard – muscular, tannic, dark
  • Petit Verdot – The Psycho – nervy, black, vibrant
  • Malbec – The Distracted Tourist – purple, aromatic, spicy

Blending these five distinctly different wines with endless possibilities can be a daunting task. It's similar to what a painter must feel while standing in front of an empty canvas. Without a creative plan and good technique the end result would reveal a lack of knowledge and thoughtfulness. It is only when one truly understands that each component can either create something greater or make it worse that you can make a great blend. Just like mixing two colors together to produce a third color, it is amazing when two or three wines are blended and a new wine is created.

It is important to note that the choices are not limited to just the varieties. Each variety has different clones (a slight genetic variation of a uniform group that exhibits a somewhat different character than the original group) and as a result and an example there can be a number of merlots in the cellar with different characters to choose from. Then there are the different flavor choices which result from decisions the winemaker has made such as using hot vs. cold fermentation, long skin contact vs. short skin contact, and wine aged in new oak or old oak.

So wine blending is the culmination of creative endeavors, instincts, and knowledge, which can result in a unique, great tasting piece of "Art in a Bottle." When this happens a winemaker has fulfilled his ultimate goal. And fortunately, it can be poured into a glass for all to enjoy the fruits of the effort, knowledge, and instinct that went into the creation of the blend. So when you try the fantastic Merlot based red blends on Long Island remember you are drinking "Art in a Bottle" and blending in with the ever growing Long Island wine family.

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