Rod Byers: What’s in a blend? |

Rod Byers: What’s in a blend?

What’s a blend? Everyone would agree that any wine produced from two or more grape varieties would count as a blend. What about a wine all from the same variety but harvested from different vineyards? Or what about a wine produced from the same variety, harvested from the same vineyard, but from selected spots within that vineyard? What about different fermentation techniques, different yeasts, different barrels?

You might argue that all wines are blends of some kind. The reason winemakers don’t just lump everything together is because they are always looking for nuance. They are looking to reveal hidden flavor in both subtle and dramatic ways.

Over centuries of time Europe’s fine wine regions standardized into growing combinations of grapes specific to each region. The name of the wine became more linked to the name of the region than to the individual grape varieties. You might know that a Bordeaux blend is a mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot but would you recognize a blend of Tempranillo and Graciano as a wine from the Rioja region of Spain?

Unlike Europe, in the U.S. we are now used to wines being called by their grape names. There was a time, not that very long ago, that the California wine industry was known for producing oceans of cheap table wines often called Burgundy or Chablis. But as most wine drinkers know there has been a huge renaissance in quality over the last 40 years. With that increased quality was a shift towards varietal labeling.

American regulations require that a wine be a minimum of 75% of a single variety in order to be labeled by its grape name. Again, unlike Europe, California winemakers can experiment with any combination of grapes they choose but if any one component falls below 75% they’re obligated to call it table wine. Because the category was once considered a dumping ground for homeless wines, wines that couldn’t make it into a winery’s varietal program, a winemaker needed a good reason to make a 70%-30% blend rather than one that was 80%-20%.

When California winemakers realized they could add nuance to their Cabernets by blending they looked to the standardized combinations of grapes being used in Europe. We began to see a wave of less than 75% combinations of Cabernet Sauvignon blended with its traditional Bordeaux partners, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. No longer able to be labeled varietally as Cabernet Sauvignon they were introduced to us as Bordeaux Blends.”

Legally they were in the “red table wine” category but now these wines were special. They had a reason.

Today in California we see Tuscan blends, Rhone blends, even Rioja blends, all based on traditional combinations of European grapes. Although they are all in the table wine category we still fit them into recognized categories of traditional blends to be able to give them their reasons.

But what happens when you stray?

Italy has a highly codified set of wine laws. In the 1960s a Tuscan producer wanted to make a Cabernet Sauvignon based blend. But according to the regional laws, Cab wasn’t permitted as part of the standardized combination of allowable grapes.

The producer, so sure that the resulting wine would be good, did it anyway. His wine was kicked out of the system and he was forced to take the lowest designation, vino da tavola.

Rod Byers, a certified wine educator, teaches wine classes at Sierra College and is a California State Certified Wine Judge. He can be reached by e-mail at or by phone at 530-913-3703.

The wine, Sassicaia, was a huge success, launching a whole new category of wines known as Super Tuscans. Italy was forced to re-write its laws to include Sassicaia back into their system.

Non-traditional blends are the new frontier

Changes like that won’t be easy in America either. Here, even though a unique blend breaks no label law, it defies our marketplace of easy pigeonholing. In America we remain very varietally oriented. So much so that European producers are trying to change their laws so they can sell their wines to us as Chardonnay or Merlot rather than by their traditional regional names.

Selling wine as a Bordeaux or Rhone blend is already an uphill battle. Is it madness then to blur the field even more, blending across traditionally recognized category lines? It can be a thin line of perception between mongrel red and thoughtful blend.

In spite of that, non-traditional combinations of table wines are increasingly being blended in new and provocative ways. The table wine category is rapidly becoming one of the trendiest sections of the wine marketplace.

Hey Mambo, a blend of Barbera, Syrah and Petite Sirah, at $9, seems like an easy red blend choice. Bacio Divino’s Pazzo, a blend of Sangiovese, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, at $32 requires a more steadfast commitment. Orin Swift’s The Prisoner ($32, Zin-Cab-Syrah), L’Aventure’s Optimus ($45, Syrah-Cab) and Duckhorn’s Paraduxx ($48, Zin-Cab) are all examples of highly acclaimed, non-traditional blends whose flavor and price tags are stretching the boundaries of what we think of as “red table wine”.

It is one of the most exciting new trends in California winemaking. Why shouldn’t we be able to forge our own combinations of varietals, Cabernet and Syrah or Sangiovese and Zinfandel? These wines may well become the next group of classic combinations for generations of future winemakers.

While there will always be a place and a need for simple and fruity red table wine at a reasonable price, keep an eye on this new category of thoughtful and artful blends of non-traditional varieties dating each other. These wines are forging a new frontier in the ever-unfolding saga that is wine.

One Final Note: I have a new wine class starting the last week in August. It is a three-hour class every Wednesday evening through December 10. Anyone interested should contact Sierra College.

Rod Byers, a certified wine educator, teaches wine classes at Sierra College and is a California State Certified Wine Judge. He can be reached by e-mail at or by phone at 530-913-3703.

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