You have never in your lifetime, and this is no doubt true going back many, many generations, ever had a wine that was only one grape from one section of one vineyard.
I, of course, have no psychic powers, and, honest, have not been keeping track of what you’ve been drinking, but I feel quite safe in making that statement. And as for me feeling safe making any statement, that’s about the end of it.
Wines, even wines labeled cabernet sauvignon, or merlot, or sauvignon blanc, are always blends. Sometimes wines are blends of several grapes. And less frequently, wines are blends of the same grape from different plots within a vineyard.
But wines are always blends at some level or another.
Let’s take, as an example, a wine labeled cabernet sauvignon, from the Oakville region of Napa Valley in California, and noted that it came from the To Kalon Vineyard, a very famous place.
In order to state that on the label, the wine has to contain at least 85% of those grapes from that place. That leaves a full 15% of something else that can be put in that bottle, labeled that way, and still be able to call itself by the designation, cabernet sauvignon, To Kalon Vineyard.
This federal regulation gives the winemaker the opportunity to improve on the wine and to add other grapes, or maybe the same grape from other places, to bring more body, texture, aromas, whatever he/she thinks the wine needs to make it a truly memorable beverage. And the winemaker has not compromised the wine’s heritage, according to law.
Yet, even within the To Kalon vineyard, a winemaker and a vineyard manager will keep separate the grapes that come from different parcels within the vineyard. They are sometimes picked at different times due to different ripening. They may be different from their neighboring plot due to different canopy management, which is the way the grape leaves are trimmed during the growing season to allow more or less sun time on the fruit. They may be different because of the way a weather pattern, such as a cold snap, moved across the vineyard. The soils may be slightly different, or the elevations varied, giving the fruit that characteristic from that particular place. And the grapes may even be different because the picking crew could not finish the work at a desired time and the fruit hung out there just a day or two longer than the winemaker would like.
The point is that different places within the same vineyard provide different outcomes.
It is the job of the winemaker to put together in the bottle the best possible product, and that takes using wines that came from grapes that were just….different when they arrived in the winery, so they were all kept and fermented with their own from the same place.
That, in the narrowest context, is still a blend, even though it is the same grape from essentially the same place.
Obviously when there is more than one grape type present in the wine that too is a blend. The winemaker determines what he wants his dominant grape to be and he starts moving from there to include other grapes at some percentage that add character or whatever is the goal that will be achieved.
Blending is really where the winemaker earns his/her paycheck. Growing grapes can be challenging, but most of that is due to nature and all the curveballs that she can throw at you over a period of many months with fruit that is fully exposed to the elements.
Blending is the art of controlling the final outcome with decisions made in the winery.
Specific blending decisions usually begin at some point after initial fermentation during the time the wine is resting in the barrels, or in the tanks, depending on what grapes are being turned into something we can enjoy. While in the barrels, the winemaker and his team assess what they have. Up to this point, some of that information gathering has been going on, but the immediate product after fermentation is not a joy to behold. You have to be a bit patient.
Now winemakers know their fields and they know the types of wine they want to make, which usually are those that sell off the shelves within the period of one year, when another younger wine of the same type will move in. In this regard, blending is not all about trial and error. There are “knowns” going into the blending process, including knowing what has happened in previous vintages with fruit from the same place.
Still, one mistake in blending messes everything up. You cannot go back and un-blend. And you only get one chance every year to make a wine. I have visions of bankers standing over winemakers going, “You’d better do this right.”
Probably the most outrageous example of blending is French champagne. Even some non-vintage French champagnes are blends of over 300 wines, chosen from grapes that started in different years and from different places. Can you imagine tasting through the current vintage of wine and making a decision about whether to use that wine now or hold on to it for another time? Then you have to decide how much aged wine from what different tanks to choose. And you have 270 tanks of wine from which to choose.
Then you assemble the wine that will make you proud and uphold the tradition of your champagne house.
Makes Rubik’s Cube look like child’s play.