Picture the witch's cauldron bubbling up with smoke, fire and brimstone. She tastes the brew and discovers it needs something, perhaps a pinch of eye of newt. Or perhaps even a dash of Merlot. What might lurk underneath the smoky cauldron's lid? Quite possibly the most delicious wine blend of the century.
All over the world, winemakers blend their wines much like a witch's brew, with patience and endless taste tests. They perfect their craft during years of effort, nitpicking over the tinniest of tannins and the smallest sugar variations. The reasoning behind this age-old ritual is to get the flavor of the wine just right, like when you add extra basil, garlic or salt to a homemade batch of marinara sauce. And, like a cook, the winemaker strives to please his/her taste while creating something you will enjoy as well.
Why blend? Sometimes winemakers just like to have fun and concoct an entirely new wine flavor profile. These blends turn out to be the most enjoyable because the winemaker's personality shines through. Australia's Penfolds and California's Bonny Doon, Ridge and Marietta Cellars are a few wineries that have introduced us to their unique style of wines. Most of the time, the percentages are listed on the label, so you can learn which different varietals strike your fancy.
But generally, blends are downright crucial. Sometimes a Cabernet, Malbec or Zinfandel alone is too tannic to release on unsuspecting palates. The harshness of the wine can assault your mouth and send you running for the hills. To woo you, the winemaker might add a dollop of smoother, fruitier Merlot to even out or "balance" a harsh or young Cabernet. And a little dab'll do ya; adding 25 percent of another grape's juice can change the wine experience. (In California, if a bottle is labeled Merlot, the juice within must be at least 75 percent Merlot.)
France has been blending wine for centuries in Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley. The majority of wineries in Bordeaux produce blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot or Malbec. California makes its own French-style blend of at least three of these grapes, and call it Meritage [mare i TIDGE]. White Meritage is a blend of the two white grapes grown in Bordeaux: Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. (There is a third, Muscadelle, but it doesn't show up often.) The Rhone Valley boasts one of the most famous blends in the wine world: Chateauneuf du Pape [sha TOE nuf doo POP], named after an area in the Southern part of France. Winemakers can use up to 13 different grapes for a Chateauneuf du Pape blend, with Grenache or Syrah grapes as a base. Because of the variety of grapes used, the style of this blend can range from smooth and fruity to heavy and tannic.
So next time you're in the market for a Cabernet, don't be surprised if there's a little Merlot thrown in. And be sure to watch for the eye of newt. Recommended blends:
Buckeley's 1999 Cabernet Shiraz ($11) 1/2: Wow. Smooth as ice tannins, loaded with big fruit flavor. This is an Aussie Cab blend for Merlot lovers. An incredible value.
Marietta Cellars Old Vine Red #28 ($13) : From a small Sonoma County winery comes a delicious blend of reds, predominantly Zinfandel. Full-bodied, smooth and fruity, you can't go wrong with their consistent blend.
Penfolds' Rawson's Retreat Semillon/ Chardonnay ($10) 1/2: Brand new wine released from this Australian powerhouse. Great blend that oozes tropical fruit and a toasty oak finish. Incredible value.
Firestone 1997 Cabernet/Syrah ($18) : 60 percent Cabernet, 40 percent Syrah. Hefty wine, a bit tannic, but good raspberry fruit on the tongue. Definitely a food wine, possibly with grilled veggies and chicken.
Taylor Eason is a regionally based wino who studied the juice in France and Italy. Comments? E-mail corkscrew@ creativeloafing.com or call 1-800-341-LOAF.
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