When a wine is labeled a blend — no matter whether it’s red, white or rosé — the label offers a journey into a labyrinthine world of choices a winemaker makes to craft a wine that aims to be superior to the sum of its parts.
Washington state’s longest-tenured winemaker, Rob Griffin of Barnard Griffin in Richland, says he believes he “does more blending than most,” because he often makes his wines from multiple vineyard sources.
During his 45 vintages in the Columbia Valley, the graduate of famed University of California-Davis has developed a network of grape growers in Eastern Washington and northeast Oregon with a specific purpose of creating a palette of flavors for the cellar at his family-run operation.
That approach is a little different than winemakers who draw grapes from only or chiefly from estate vineyards. Reid Klei, winemaker at Alexandria Nicole Cellars in the Horse Heaven Hills, personifies that approach, producing a rather broad array of wines from grapes grown at the Boyle family’s Destiny Ridge Vineyard.
Griffin is convinced, largely through experience dating back to 1977, his approach yields wines that compare with the state’s best when he assembles his top-tier wines. The blending also helps him manage costs while still appealing to budget-minded consumers.
“It’s better to work with a variety of sources,” he said.
Klei spent 15 years with Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, working on a variety of projects for several of its labels using grapes from vine- yards throughout the Columbia Valley. Now, he’s pleased to be working with Destiny Ridge grapes.
Though their approaches may differ, they firmly agree on one thing — blending can make better wines in ways often invisible to the consumer.
The addition of just 3% Petit Verdot “can really improve Cabernet Sauvignon,” Griffin says.
Such a small amount likely won’t be noted on the label for a single varietal, which by U.S. law is only required to be 75% of its labeled varietal.
“In this climate, we often soften Merlot with Cab and add backbone to Cab with Merlot,” Griffin added.
Klei also does that.
“Blending is super important for keeping your consistency (from vintage to vintage),” he noted, “and to get texture, color …. To soften mouth feel, add Cab to Merlot.”
For Rhône and Bordeaux red blends, wine- makers are judicious with Syrah and Malbec, respectively, because even small amounts of either can make them the dominant voice.
A touch of Malbec added to Cab Franc, for example, will add color, Klei says. He also blends “to fill holes, to tone down “ ‘big’ ele- ments in a wine.”
Blending, plus the 25% leeway the rules allow, and maybe even in rare instances using small amounts of a different vintage — up to 5% is allowed — can augment the final result.
Because the ultra-hot 2021 growing season was so “wildly different” from 2020, Klei says, thoughtful amounts of inter-vintage blending helped to maintain the wine profiles Alexandria Nicole’s longtime supporters have embraced.
A few other tricks also can augment a blend. Klei pointed out that many Rhône blends of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre (GSM) are co-fermented beginning on the crush pad and may include a bit of Viognier, a popular and versatile white Rhône grape.
When Klei worked at Columbia Crest in Paterson on its highly praised Walter Clore Reserve, a Bordeaux-style red blend, the winemaking team “blended in the tank early on to let the components meld together.”
One Barnard Griffin blend — named “Mammoth” for its massive structure that’s prized by wine club members — was created by the “spaghetti on the wall” method, Griffin says. Simply put, they kept blending various wines with the sole goal of producing a tasty and hefty red wine for hearty foods.
For the Mammoth and all of their wines, Griffin, his winemaking daughter Megan Hughes and longtime assistant winemaker Mickey French blend and evaluate every one across three to four days to confirm their decisions.
Occasionally, a blend is created out of necessity when leftover amounts of good wines from single varietals need a home, Griffin said.
And once in a while because of a mistake, he noted wryly. At a California winery, a worker once dumped some red wine into a tank of
pale white, producing an unexpected result. It unexpectedly became a popular new addition at the winery.
At times, Klei says blending decisions can be influenced by how much of a wine the winery team — led by founding winemaker/owner Jarrod Boyle — wants to produce so that all club members can receive an allocation, plus enough to allow them to buy more of a popular club-only wine.
For Klei, it’s best “to put your base (wine) together, then add other components to augment what it’s missing.”
“We taste through every lot about 20 times and consult tasting notes,” he said, sometimes adding various elements to address any issues. They blend small amounts in trials for a few weeks before big lots are assembled, then they see if their creation needs anything.
With a Rhône or Bordeaux (blend), there are endless possibilities,” he added. “You need to think about the style of wine you want to produce.
“The hardest part about blending is knowing when you’re done. You could probably talk to 100 different winemakers and get 100 different blending philosophies.”
Wine words: Vin de goutte, vin de presse
You probably don’t need a degree in French to know vin means “wine.” The rest translates as “from the drop” and “from the press.”
The first phrase — pronounced von day GOO-tah — basically refers to the free-run juice that oozes out from grapes as they are dumped from bins prior to heading to the crusher. Winemakers often separate out that juice. They may later blend it into the “von day PRESS-uh” juice or set it aside for something else — perhaps a rosé.