Single Varietal Wines Versus Blends

(Originally published November 2001)

Hanes often gets asked which makes for a better wine, a blend of different grapes or a wine made from a single grape varietal. Usually, Hanes scoffs at the person's impertinent question, cuffs them repeatedly about their ears and sends them on their way. In an attempt to prevent such future lines of questioning, Hanes will now address this question.

To answer this one needs first to understand the difference between "old world" and "new world" winemaking traditions and labeling practices. In the "old world," which is tantamount to saying Europe, every winemaking region more or less has settled on the grapes they will grow and only rarely do they list these grapes on the bottle label. In the "new world," which means North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and every other non-European region, there are few traditionally bound (if not legally bound) grapes grown in a region and the usual procedure is to list the grape varietals used on the label.

As a result, a red wine from France's Burgundy region will not say it is made from Pinot Noir, you are just supposed to know this fact. But a Pinot Noir from California will say "Pinot Noir" on the label. This is because tradition and law have not codified what exact grapes can be grown exactly where, as is the case in 99% of Europe. This divergence in labeling practices makes it difficult to root out just what grapes are being used and how dominant a single grape varietal really is in any wine.

The labeling issue is important because it reveals how varied and confusing the practices and laws governing grape blending across the globe can be. Consumer purchasing assumptions are made based on historical precedent and/or regulations and these can sometimes be slightly misleading. Unless you have a Master of Wine palate that can tell that there's more Sémillon than Sauvignon Blanc in a given wine, the label is your only trustworthy guide to definitive knowledge. If the label does not provide adequate information you have to recalibrate your expectations of the wine because what you expect may not be what you get.

Por ejemplo, wines from the Côte Rôtie region in France are made from Syrah, although it says this nowhere on the label. So you buy one and say to yourself I've just bought some sweeeeet Syrah! But what you need to know is that local law allows up to 20% of the white grape Viognier to be blended with the Syrah. Now, history has shown that allowing some Viognier adds to the wine's aromatics and helps give it some "lift" in the mouth. This is a good thing. But don't assume a Côte Rôtie is nothing but Syrah. Same for another wine like Chianti Classico from Tuscany in Italy. These wines are based on the Sangiovese grape but regulations require that certain percentages of the white grapes Trebbiano and Malvasia be used in any Chianti Classico wine. Even newer regulations allow the use in small percentages of non-traditional grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Syrah. So, yeah, Chianti is "Sangiovese" but never 100% so. Once more, Spanish wines from Rioja are based on the Tempranillo grape but they are not always made totally from it. Other grapes such as Garnacha, Cariñena or Graciano may be blended in according to winery dictates. But anyone will tell you Rioja reds are made from Tempranillo.

Things are simpler in the "new world" because they at least take the trouble of telling you what grape is in the bottle. But it is more accurate to say what grape is dominant in the bottle because even if it says Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz on that pretty bottle from California or Australia, it is not necessarily 100% so (although it can be, just as Côte Rôtie can be 100% Syrah if the producer chooses to make it so). In the U.S., the named grape varietal must make up only 75% of the wine. So that "Merlot" may truly be 77% Merlot and 23% Cabernet Franc, etc. Without a doubt, more can be taken for granted, but not everything.

Understanding just what labels do and do not tell you about what grapes are in the bottle is key because, first, you can use this information to let you know in a general way what grapes you prefer to swill but also, second, it can help you to feel out your relative enjoyment of blended or single varietal wines, which is the question for today.

That old world tradition allows for, if not mandates, blends says something about the merits of blending. Bordeaux reds are made in varying percentages from Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc (and to a much lesser extent Petit Verdot and in the past Malbec). This is done because each grape brings different qualities to the final blend. For Bordeaux, the Cabernet Sauvignon may lend tannic structure and earthiness while the Merlot gives fresh, round fruit flavors while a bit of Cabernet Franc may change the aromatics and give the wine a more herbaceous flavor. The idea is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, a fact borne out over centuries of winemaking.

While blending grapes in a wine may allow each grape to temper the other's excesses or rough spots and make for a nicer finished product, the devil's advocate position can trot out many examples of 100% varietal wines or wines with a very negligible amount of secondary grapes. These singular grapes utilized are said to pair perfectly with the local terrain and climate, have no need of supplementation from other grapes, and speak with the purity of a single voice. Examples include Chardonnay in making white Burgundy wines and Chenin Blanc in white Vouvray wines. Given the stellar wines coming from such regions and single grapes, it is hard to argue with this position too. (In passing we should note that as consumers get more accustomed to seeing the grape name on the bottle, many old world regions --particularly the less prestigious -- have taken to putting the grape varietal name on the bottle in hopes of then selling a more "familiar" product and increasing their market share.)

Now, when drinking old world wines one can enjoy both blended and single varietal wines in the secure knowledge that generations of experimentation have resulted in these wines being the best of all possible choices (cf. Leibniz). Of course, history has not ended (cf. Hegel) and traditions and laws are being revised throughout the old world, for example, in places like the Veneto region in Italy with their Valpolicella and Amarone wines. Expect such tweaking to occur for time immemorial.

For better or worse, such tweaking is still the norm in the new world (hence, it is called the new world you bonehead). In many places certain grape varietals have taken remarkably to the local terrain and climate and they have quickly excelled, leaving little doubt that they will continue to make stupendous wines that do not require much, if any, blending to address inherent weaknesses. Examples include Shiraz in Australia, Malbec in Argentina, Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand, and Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley. Yet, even given these standouts there's a lot more experimentation going on than sure bets -- Tempranillo being planted in Chile, Zinfandel in Australia, Sangiovese in California, just about anything in Long Island's North Fork...

All of these are being made more or less as singly-designated varietals when bottled. What Hanes finds curious is how so few "local blends" have taken hold across the new world as are found traditionally in old world wines such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Port dessert wines. Almost exclusively, every popular new world blend is a copy of an old world template. This is questionable because while Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre may make for a killer blend in the Rhône Valley why assume they make for the best combination when grown in California or Australia? Maybe it would be best to drop the Grenache and add Merlot? The idea in blending is to find grapes that grow well in a given region and then complement each other best in a final blending. Since all the grapes have been imported from elsewhere, why not throw out all the rules and mix Tempranillo with Cabernet Franc and Nebbiolo? Undoubtedly, some of this has already been done by adventurous winemakers in the not-too-distant past and maybe the traditional old world-styled blends still turned out the best final product. But still, while a Californian Sangiovese may taste poorly on its own it may for some reason blend well with Mourvèdre in a way it never could if grown in Tuscany or Bandol. Who knows until you try it? (And Hanes means YOU try it -- if you don't keel over dead, THEN he'll try it!)

The upshot is that when buying old world European wines chances are there is not going to be a huge qualitative difference between blends and single grape varietal wines. Difference in quality will be more driven by vintage conditions and individual winery winemaking standards. Although, naturally, these factors can and do effect the final blend (e.g., conditions in the 2005 vintage may not allow the Cabernet to fully ripen mandating a larger percentage of Merlot be used in the final blend while in 2006 the Cabernet may ripen fully allowing more to be used). Some people prefer the focused flavors that a single grape varietal wine offers while others may prefer a more fluid harmony produced by a judicious blend, but these are subjective preferences.

New world blends on the whole represent a greater gamble because the old world "template" cannot always be replicated due to difference in terrain and climate. At the same time, single grape varietal wines represent another kind of risk in that when the grape is planted in a place not ideally suited for it (e.g., a climate too hot to grow the delicate Pinot Noir grape) there is nothing in the wine to cover up these flaws and they will be that much more apparent. This is most likely part of the reason a country like the United States has the aforementioned regulation that named grape varietal wines only need to be made from 75% of it -- you've got to have some leeway in the winemaking process to create a nice finished product. Many acres have been planted with a type of grape only to have them ripped out ten years later because it proved unsuitable to the region. Maybe they'll figure this all out by the time Buck Rogers hits the set. In the meanwhile, don't fetishize the name of a particular region's blend or the grape name on the label. Instead, be bold, pop the cork and fetishize what's in the bottle.