The art of the blend

Great taste involves a good deal of refinement.

Break wine down to its simplest form and you’re left with two styles: single-grape or varietal wine and blended wine. Blends come in all types — white, red, rosé and sparkling — and are the most popular form of winemaking.

The home of the blend is Bordeaux, France, where the style has been elevated to an art form and where many believe the masterpieces are created. The Bordeaux-blend is recognizable to wine lovers of all kinds and includes cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot (a.k.a. cabernet-merlot), as well as petit verdot and malbec.

In years gone by, vintners outside Bordeaux would label their cabernet-merlot as a Bordeaux-blend, but no more. Bordeaux became a protected name — like Champagne, Burgundy and other famous winemaking locales

— which meant a new name had to be invented. In 1988 the term “meritage” (itself a blend of the words merit and heritage) entered the wine lexicon, becoming synonymous with red blends made with Bordeaux grape varieties.

Blending is an insurance policy of sorts. Not all grapes ripen at the same time; grapes such as merlot are early ripeners, while those such as cabernet sauvignon can ripen one or two months later, and late-ripening grapes may not reach full maturity. Making a single varietal wine from underripe grapes can result in a “green” wine: one with vegetal rather than fruit aromas and flavours. However, blending fully ripened grapes with underripe ones mitigates the green flavours and creates a wine that is well balanced and nuanced, especially with the right use of oak and proper percentages of each grape. Samples must be tasted until just the right blend is achieved. This makes a less-than-suitable or “difficult” vintage into something good or even great.

But blending isn’t just for bad vintages or mediocre climates; it can also add complexity to a wine that a single varietal just can’t match. For instance, many wines labelled cabernet sauvignon from California actually contain a percentage of other grapes (up to 25%) to give that added element of je ne sais quoi.

And we’re back to French. When the subject is wine, it always leads back to the French.