Is Blended Better?

Is blended better? Are blended wines inherently better than single variety (varietal) wines? I recently had lunch with the new wine maker for Big House wines (more on that later), and we got into an interesting discussion about blended verses varietal wines. Our answer to the general question was no; any given varietal wine could be better or worse than any given blended wine and vice versa. However, we also agreed that if you went to the store and blindly picked one varietal wine and one blended wine, the odds are that the blended wine would be better than the varietal.

When you think about it, this makes perfect sense. If you have just one grape variety (say Cabernet Sauvignon) to work with, then the wine is going to be no better than that growth of that grape is capable of producing. However, if you have two, three, four or more grape varieties to work with, then you can blend them in such a way that you enhance their appealing characteristics and cloak their less appealing characteristics. The Europeans have been doing this very thing for hundreds of years. The most famous example is probably red Bordeaux, which is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and one or two other varieties. While the Cabernet Sauvignon creates the structure of these wines, the Merlot softens the hard edges of the Cabernet Sauvignon, creating a more drinkable wine.

You could say that it’s easier to produce a good blended wine than a good varietal wine, but that might be too much a generalization. What you can say is that wine makers working with blended wines have significantly more latitude in determining what the finished product will be. For example, they could produce a wine that was 90% a single variety and use only small amounts of other varieties to “tweak” the final result. This wine would probably have most of the characteristics of the predominate variety, with some of its rough edges covered by the blending varieties. On the other hand, they might incorporate significant percentages of several grape varieties; such that the final result is something completely new, not having the characteristics of any of the constituent varieties.

So what do you call a wine that’s not predominantly any particular grape variety? The answer is you can call it pretty much anything you like. Most blended wines have made-up names like Latitude or Affinity or Magnificat or the like. These are simply names created to market the wine. Some blended wines use more traditional names (or terms) such as meritage, claret or cuvee. These terms have been used for hundreds of years to identify blended wines; for example claret is the British term for Bordeaux style blends. Some wine makers keep it really simple and label their blends simply “red wine” or “table wine”. In any case, it is the absence of a varietal name on the label that tells you the wine is a blend.

United States law does not require producers to disclose the content of their blended wines (most other countries do). Even so, most producers disclose the content of their blended wines. The varieties are usually listed in order (the varieties that constitute the largest percentage first) and sometimes percentages are shown. This type of information will ordinarily appear on the back label, but occasionally it will show up on the front. So the next time you buy a bottle of wine, read both the front and back labels. Just to confuse matters more, the presence of a varietal name on the label does not necessarily mean the wine is 100% that variety. While requirements vary from county to country, in the United States, the wine can be as much as 25% other varieties and still be labeled as a varietal.

Cellar Notes

As I mentioned earlier, I recently had the opportunity to talk at length with Georgetta Dane, the new wine maker for Big House wines. She is Romanian and comes to Big House from Kendal Jackson. She is taking blending to a whole new level at Big House. She talked about having 42 varieties of grapes to select from in making her label’s various blends. The Big House Red has contains 22 varieties, not all of which are shown on the label. Likewise, the Big House White is a blend of some 10 varieties. Using this many varieties is a bit more radical than most wine makers, but these are interesting wines. The Big House Lineup is a blend of just four varieties; Mourvèdre, Grenache Noir and Syrah. The Big House web site is a little unusual as well www. bighousewine.com

Big House Red
Big House Wines
California
HEB $5 – $10

Big House White
Big House Wines
California
HEB $5 – $10

Big House Lineup (red wine)
Big House Wines
California
Spec’s $5 – $10