Get your WINE GEEK on: The art of BLENDING.
Winemaking is a skill, a science, but also, an art, an expression of not only the soil and terroir of a particular vineyard, but also the grape varieties, weather conditions, particularly rainfall or irrigation, from the past two years, and the conscious decisions of the winemaker. I am assuming, for the sake of this discussion, that the winemaker is also the farmer that grows the grapes and tends the vineyard.
Winemaking begins in the vineyard, or more precisely, in the vine as it sends roots deep down into the soil searching for water. The vine is especially transparent about conveying the essence of the land, a sense of place, to the fruit it bears. Specific minerals, herbs, flowers, and other influences upon the soil often find a way through the soil, through the roots, and into the expression of the grape as wine. Crazy weird, but endlessly intriguing. So, the grapes grow, but the winemaker chooses how and when to prune the vines, clip leaves, spray sulfur or irrigate…and each of these decisions impacts the growth, maturity, ripeness and ultimately, the flavor of the grapes. Upon phenological ripeness, or when the appropriate brix level and acidity are reached by the grapes, the winemaker will choose to pick. Of course, early or later does have an integral effect on the style and taste of the wine. Micro-climates and climatic trends in a particular vineyard can skew the date of picking even within one vineyard, as well as across a designated growing region.
Pickers harvest the grapes and haul them back to the sorting tables…again, I am assuming the grapes are making a short trip from vineyard to table, but often they are tossed on a truck and transported. More choices here, too, as the grapes are sorted by ripeness and rotten or flawed fruit are discarded. And, moving right along, the grapes are then crushed to extract the juice. Ripe grapes split fairly easily to spill their delicious juice. Modern winemakers utilize a variety of methods, but most employ a press of some sort, lighter or deeper press will yield less or more influence of the bitter pips, or seed tannin, stems and skin contact. But, stomping by human feet or by a basket press, although labor intensive, are alternative methods that still takes place, too, as well as piling grapes high to encourage free-run juice or tossing in whole clusters. Leaves, stems, bugs, and debris are hopefully sorted out and bypassed during this process as well.
And then, the magic starts. Fermentation is an amazing process in which yeasts, and sometimes other microflora, begin to voraciously eat the sugars in the grapes, with byproducts of CO2 and alcohol. This is a natural process and also creates aromatic esters and other incredibly interesting scientific components. The first, primary fermentation is the pivotal chemical change from grape juice to wine. Temperature and environmental factors determine the length of fermentation, and it wraps when the yeasts are happy, full, and ready to die. A secondary fermentation, malolactic, is often the next step, creating a creamy texture…this is induced by bacteria and is a biochemical process. Winemakers choose to let this happen or not. After fermentation, the juice is essentially wine, but a series of very important decisions still lie between juice and a finished wine. Fining, filtering, racking, or clarifying are all options. But, the real long term decisions come from aging, in oak barrels, new or old, American, French, Hugarian, etc., stainless steel tanks, concrete, or glass lined tanks. And, of course, blending.
BLENDING is the component of winemaking in which the crafter of wine has a primary hand in creating a signature style, taste, yet also letting the earth and fruit shine through, or not. But, finding that particular ‘wine’ flavor that speaks to the wine geek or just the average wine drinker. Wine as a beverage originated as a field blend…all the grapes grown within a vineyard were just all tossed in together, co-fermented and consumed prior to aging. And, then, as the Romans perfected winemaking…and then the French, blending was fine tuned as certain grapes were consciously planted, fermented, and vinified to create a certain taste and different areas produced different flavors and styles. Wines were manipulated to taste like ‘Right Bank Bordeaux’ or ‘Chateauneuf du Pape’, not only by climate and dirt, but also by choosing certain grapes to blend in precise ratios.
Although the winemaker has a slew of options and tools to work with, the ultimate task is to make a yummy wine that appeals to the consumer…or a whole handful of consumers…and perhaps impress a few professionals or go for the big ‘points’. Blending is extremely complicated. The winemaker may have barrels of the same grapes from the same vineyard, picked on the same day or even different days, that taste drastically different. So, blending to a certain taste is fairly similar to cooking…a dash of this and a pinch of that. But, spiral that out further, and the palette may include various grapes from the same vineyard but different soil types…or several regions, or yes, even different vintages, methods of aging and fermentation. Underscore the double wammy of new oak and malolactic fermentation or mellow out the oak with stainless juice; mingle textures and infuse flavors of white grapes to red. Yeah, quite an undertaking. But, this is the art of a winemaker…this is what they get a kick out of; it is what makes the rockstars or just part of the crowd.
As a tangible example, Orin Swift ‘Veladora’ is a Sauvignon Blanc from Napa Valley, California. However, the winemaker, Dave Phinney, has blended the same Sauvignon Blanc from the same vineyard, but treated various components is different ways to create a textural adventure for the lucky sipper. Approximately half of the juice undergoes malolactic fermentation and rests to age in newer French oak barrels, while the other half remains lean and bracing and steely from aging in stainless steel tanks. When blended, the fat, unctuous texture of malo and oaked SB intertwines with the minerally, zippy SB to create a fun mouthful of surprises. Check it out.
And, Mr. Hirsh does this as well in is Russian River Valley Chardonnay, but he kicks in glass line stainless tanks to the mix.
OR, for a different experience, track down a few bottles of ‘Rhone’ blends from the same appellation and check out the differences in flavor. I especially get a thrill out of beautifully blended Syrah/Viognier that has been co-fermented. Ah, lovely.