To dispel a common misconception, all wines are blends. This is true whether or not the wine you’re opening for tonight’s dinner carries a varietal, proprietary or regional name on the label.
Some regions, primarily in the New World, are better known for varietal labeling (e.g. Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay) as opposed to their Old World counterparts where tradition calls more for proprietary or regional names (e.g. Dom Perignon or Rioja) regardless of the varieties included that are also not normally referenced on the label.
However, due to the basic nature of winemaking, all wines are blended to some degree, even if the wine is 100 percent one variety and/or 100 percent from a single vineyard. In these cases, blends are created from a variety of fermentation vessels and barrel types, vinification and aging protocols, vineyard blocks, pick dates, vintages (i.e. Champagne, Cognac and Port) or a multitude of other component influences to create the finished wine reflecting a winemaker’s stylistic interpretation.
So, the question is not whether a given wine is a blend, but rather what thought, purpose and direction went into the blending process. Here, the winemaker’s personal touch ultimately exhibits his or her artistic talent.
By U.S. law, when a varietal name is used on the label it must contain a minimum of 75 percent of that variety except under specific conditions such as those in Oregon where, in some cases, the minimum is raised to 90 percent. When using a proprietary name (e.g. Opus One or Harlan Estate), the producer is free to blend any proportion of the varietal components with no consideration of minimums or maximums.
The history and traditions of winemaking are expressed differently in various growing areas of the world. In most Old World areas where mono-varietal wines are produced, they are usually marketed with the producer’s name and seldom with the variety. The same is true of the traditional blends where no reference is made to the varietal composition.
Does the consumer know what grapes in what percentages are used in any vintage of Château Latour? No, but they relate to the name Château Latour on the bottle and that’s enough. The same is true of Napa wines bearing a proprietary name (e.g. Insignia or Pahlmeyer) as well as other prestigious domestic growing areas.
In France’s Rhone Valley, the wines from the North (e.g. Hermitage or Cornas) are typically Syrah with the possible exception of Côte-Rôtie where a bit of Viognier is often added. While in the Southern Rhone blending is the tradition with 13 official varieties authorized in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and varying numbers in other appellations.
Blends are also the rule in Bordeaux, Champagne and other Old World areas while varietally based wines take center stage in Burgundy (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir), Cahors (Malbec) and the Loire Valley (Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc) to name a few. Similar patterns are found throughout the New and Old Worlds.
Grapes such as Albariño, Riesling and Tempranillo are best represented on their own and not as part of blend. Others like Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel can be found as varietal bottlings or as parts of a blend. And still others including Alicante Bouchet, Clairette Blanche and Canaiolo are most often seen in blends.
The art of blending, whether it entails multiple varieties or different expressions (barrel types, vineyards or specific blocks, clones etc.) of the same variety, are learned through years of hands-on experience, a trained palate memory and an immense inner-sense of what one lot has to offer but also how it will interact with others in the blend. This is where the forte of a talented winemaker and the team come into play.
Jason Haas is the second-generation co-proprietor of Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles where the history and winemaking culture of the Southern Rhone join forces with a pristine California property. The vision of Tablas Creek began in the early 1980s as a shared dream of Jason’s late father Robert Haas, along with Jean-Pierre and Francois Perrin of the highly esteemed Château de Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
In the mid-1960s, a close bond developed between the Haas and Perrin families when, through Robert’s import company (Vineyard Brands), he became the exclusive U.S. importer of Perrin wines. A four-year search for the right property began in 1985 and spanned much of California until its culmination in 1989 when they discovered what would become Tablas Creek in “Paso.”
The site was considered ideal for the production of Southern Rhone-styled wines given the combination of a Mediterranean climate paired to the high pH calcareous soils that are similar to the Perrins’ history in Châteauneuf-du-Pape but rare in California. To ensure the highest vine quality and genetic history, budwood cuttings were imported directly from Beaucastel in 1990 and then placed under the U.S. Department of Agriculture mandated three-year quarantine. The estate began planting in 1994 with the inaugural release of estate grown wines to follow from the 1997 vintage.
In all, Tablas Creek is now growing 14 varieties from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, two from the neighboring Côtes-du-Rhône and a few others spread over 115 hillside planted acres consisting of 52 individual blocks of red grapes and 26 of whites. To maximize the blending possibilities, virtually all varieties are planted in multiple blocks from various sections of the vineyard.
Tablas Creek is currently producing a wide range of handcrafted wines with 20 percent varietally labeled consisting of 100 percent of that variety. The balance is composed of several Southern Rhone-styled blends labeled under proprietary names. During the year, the winemaking and blending team gather with dozens of samples to create a menu of blends containing various proportions of chosen varieties each displaying their individual stylistic expression.
Jason expressed a keen interest, knowledge and commitment to a blending philosophy by posing and answering a simple question: “How often do you cook with only one ingredient?”
He went on to explain, “Each grape presents an individual balance of fruit, tannin, acid and minerality. Given this diversity, we are presented with countless options and opportunities to display the greatness of the vintage and vineyard over a carefully structured portfolio.”
In addition to producing stellar and critically acclaimed wines under the Tablas Creek label, the Haas/Perrin partnership has also developed a nationally recognized vine nursery where they have supplied more than 5 million cuttings to more than 600 growers from Washington to California and east to Texas and Virginia. With the genetic Beaucastel heritage, wineries across the country are also producing their varied interpretations of Southern Rhone-styled wines based primarily on the art of blending.
Thoughtful blending is much like assembling the many pieces of an intricate puzzle before expressing the final vision. Each piece has its place and, more importantly, must work in combination with all others to present the embodiment of a completed image.