I can remember when “blend” seemed to be a bad word, though in all truth, all wines are a blend. Often a blend of differing varietals masquerades as a single varietal, since in California you need only have 75% of a varietal to list only that varietal on the label. Therefore most of your California Cabernet Sauvignon will include less than 25% of a combination of grapes like Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec, the usual Bordeaux blend suspects. It can even include other grape types like Syrah or Zinfandel, as long as that total is less than 25%. So blending was California’s “dirty little secret” since the general perception was that blends were cheaper goods, the leftovers of “real” winemaking. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
As more people turned to wine as beverage of choice, pretenses became less important and finding that accessible flavor profile became more important. The general public likes it fruity with lower acidity, and they like their wine to be consistent from bottle to bottle and vintage to vintage. By manipulating the blend, Folie à Deux, the maker of Menage à Trois, could create basically the same tasting wine every time.
Now every winemaker has their fruit bomb blend with a catchy name. Some have been successful like Gallo’s Apothic and some have failed, but in the interim the public’s perception of a blend has changed. Blending is a science and an art. Blends tend to be more consistent, since they have more varietals to vary percentages of to get to that core flavor profile. Most of these ripe and juicy blends have a large proportion of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Syrah, with perhaps some Grenache and Barbera to fill out the fruit. There can even be some Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The makers are often mum about the exact blends, so they can keep manipulating it from vintage to vintage to keep the flavor the same. Now people seek them out and ask, “What is the next big blend trend?”
In the last couple of years it seems to be a return to the “Dark Side” not of “The Force” à la Star Wars, but of flavor profiles. We’ve seen new blends called “Black” or “Dark” where the winemakers have focused on the deeper fruit characters like blackberry, black cherry and black currant mingled with woody tones yet still basically a ripe and juicy fruit bomb. There may be a little more Cabernet Sauvignon in these darker blends and putting in more Syrah will give a deeper color and a spicier extraction. They may just take the Zinfandel-based base and spice it up with richer varietals or wine concentrates like “Omega Purple.”
This year we’ve seen Menage à Trois’s Silk and Apothic’s Crush, conveying more ripe fruit, yet a softer acid level. Almost like a Beaujolais Nouveau on steroids, with abundant grapey characteristics. These wines are just over the edge from grape juice, appealing to those that don’t like the winey flavors of wine, and want more “Juicy Juice.” Again no varietal composition is listed on the label, just creative verbiage that reads almost like a “Harlequin Romance.” So how do we tell blend from blend?
First let’s define the obviously Bordeaux-style blends that say either Meritage or Claret. These are going to be Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot dominated blends. If the store places blends near their Cabernet or Merlot wines, then we can assume those blends are Bordeaux-like. If the wine bottle has softer sloping shoulders (like a Chardonnay bottle) then odds are the blend is more Rhone-like with Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre. These are often called GSM blends in Australia and they tend to be softer on the tannins than Bordeaux blends but have some of the classic back pepper spice of Syrah. California Rhone blends are not as common as they once were as more and more producers are now focusing on their extra ripe and juicy blends in “normal” shouldered bottles, like the Menage à Trois-types.
Now we go back to the distinctions I’ve just made between the “original” fruit bomb blends and the newer darker versions (Black and Dark and Midnight) versus the newer softer versions (Silk and Crush). The darker descriptor wines will be slightly deeper with richer flavors when compared to the originals and when compared to the new, softer versions. If you like your wine to taste like grapes more than like wine, then look to these new, lighter versions blends.
There is quite a range in price to these fruit bomb blends from under $10 to over $30 (ever heard of “The Prisoner”?) Some of my current favorites are Relative Red from Joel Gott, The Navigator, and Renwood’s The Cleaver, which are newer Zinfandel and Petite Sirah blends that shine out to me with a little more depth and complexity than the typical Cali fruit forward blend. In the end, have no fear of blends. There is a blend out there for you. You just need to find it.
Daniel Eddy, ABC Fine Wine & Spirits Sales Manager
Follow me on Twitter @abcwineDanE