Blending The Rules
THE POPULARITY OF BLENDED WINES IS CONTINUING TO GROW AMONG WINEMAKERS AND CONNOISSEURS ALIKE.
JACQUELINE MAYA SPEAKS WITH SIMON STEELE, THE CHIEF WINEMAKER OF MEDHURST WINES, ABOUT THE HISTORY OF BLENDS, THE SECRET TO CREATING A PERFECTLY BALANCED DROP, AND WHAT LIES AHEAD FOR THIS COMPELLING VARIETY.
Images courtesy of Medhurst Wine
From the earthy and rustic notes of a GSM – a blend of grenache, syrah and mourvèdre grapes, to the bold blackcurrant and cedar aromatics of a carefully handcrafted Bordeaux wine, deciding which vino to take home has never been more difficult. To help, Wineries of Victoria explores some of the most on-trend blends available in the market and uncorks why this variety is becoming a grape sensation.
BEHIND THE BLEND
Historically, wine blending was vital for maintaining winemakers’ livelihoods, and was originally crafted to provide a steadfast variety that could be enjoyed, consumed and sold throughout the seasons. Planting a blend of grapes also acted as an early insurance policy for farmers against destruction by pests, war, or turbulent weather. Most commonly credited as the birthplace of blend wine, Bordeaux’s cool, maritime climate and early rains would often halt ripening, with late spring ruining a season at its onset.
With unstable weather conditions making ripening difficult for red grapes, creating blends provided the vintners of Bordeaux with more dependable yields and robust wines. The five grapes that are selected for red Bordeaux wine require similar nutrients, so interplanting them guaranteed that the winemakers could produce wine even in dire circumstances.
“[Blends] have always been part of winemaking,” Steele says. “For us, working on a small farm of 15 hectares of vines with varying aspects, soil types and varieties means that for any given season we have options within our paddocks to blend with. This is extremely important to us as we want to express the sites and season through the eyes of our wines, and sometimes that means blending varieties to ensure balance.”
BLENDS WITH BENEFITS
As the old saying goes, it takes two to tango, and blending two varietals together can bring out the most extraordinary qualities of seemingly underrated grape varieties. According to Steele, wines made from two or more varieties can offer a more balanced, delicious drinking experience than those from a single variety.
“Often the nose and palate dances around more, creating an intriguing [result], making it harder to identify what the varieties are,” he says. “[Blends] can be more layered and complex. Though not always, as our Medhurst YRB shows, they can be delicate and effusive too!”
Taking on a more flavour-centric approach than in the past, blending wine improves aromas, adding complexity that can assist in the ageing process, creating an exceptional wine that not only aptly represents its region but expresses its terroir by selecting the very best characteristics of each varietal. Each grape variety that is added to a wine blend contributes distinct aspects, which, when combined, results in a perfectly well-rounded, rich and smooth-tasting wine. The idea behind blending is to highlight each grape’s individual strength and complement the other grapes being used within the blend. Blending can also enrich the wine’s colour, texture, body and finish, making it a more complex varietal that can be enjoyed for many years to come.
When asked what grape varieties make the best blends, Steele advises that you can’t go past a Bordeaux wine. “We blend cabernet sauvignon with malbec, merlot and a few others,” he says. “Medhurst Wines recently planted two different clones of very high-quality merlot from Bordeaux cuttings, which is barely seen in Australia … [and] we can’t wait to nurse these vines and make our cabernet sauvignon even more complex, aromatic and intense than it already is.”
Though Steele loves single varietals, one of his favourite wines is a cabernet, malbec, and merlot blend, preferably aged between five to twenty years. “[This variety] is complex, poised and balanced, given an observant and intuitive vigneron is at the helm,” he says. While it’s clear blend wines are unique, creating varieties such as these is an intricate process, in which only a passionate winemaker can perfect.
WHEN TWO BECOME ONE
As its name suggests, a blended wine generally comprises at least 40 to 50 per cent of one type of grape, and a smaller mix of two or more other varietals. To successfully produce a blended wine, it’s essential the winemaker has an experienced palate, as well as a deep knowledge of the principles of winemaking so they can create a perfect balance between flavours and aromas.
Both an alchemist and artist in one, the vintner will first determine the best formula for their blend, and then decide which blending method is most suitable for the desired result. Winemakers can choose to allot the varieties in the same barrels or tanks, or keep them separate. However, depending on their vision, they may prefer to blend the wine half way through the ageing process, combine the wines together just before bottling, or ferment the grapes together from start to finish.
“There are a few different techniques that we subscribe to,” Steele says. “For our earlier drinking style, such as the Medhurst YRB, which is a blend of pinot noir and shiraz, we co-ferment it in the same open fermenters, and then it’s pressed and bottled early to retain optimum freshness. It’s purple in colour, super fragrant, and has a silky and juicy mouthfeel, compelling drinking for up to five to seven years.
“For our cabernet sauvignon, malbec and merlot blend, we pick these varieties on different days to optimise tannin ripeness, resulting in a long, silky finish. These varieties will then be fermented and put to barrel separately for 12 months. At that time, the varieties will then be blended based on flavour, intensity and overall balance, and then put back to barrel as a blend for a further four to six months.
“Finding the perfect balance is made easier with a blend,” Steele says. Along with growing fruit with great line and length, freshness and complexity, “balance in every aspect of the aromas, mouthfeel and tannins is the key to creating a delicious wine”.
AHEAD OF THE BLENDS
When it comes to the future of blended wines, Steele envisions fruitful horizons. “There will always be exciting new blends to grow, make and drink,” he says. “The new generation of drinkers are perhaps the most experimental in history, hence why they’re happy and excited to [taste more nuanced combinations].”
With regards to trending varietals, Steele predicts that rosè blends, as well as traditional red varietals, will continue to remain firm favourites. “Cabernet with a hint of shiraz is our best blend,” Steele says. “It’s dry yet delicate, with delicious red fruits and a long, fine palate, which makes it perfect to drink year round.”
While it’s easy to return to a tried-and-tested single variety, the next time you’re visiting a winery or your local wine grocer, instead of reaching for old faithful, try an exceptional multi-varietal wine for a blend that’s simply above the rest.