The rise of non-traditional wine blends

Blends: you just gotta love 'em!

Here in the United States we are on a first-name basis with our wine grapes, writes Mark Angelillo. The majority of casual wine drinkers understand what “Merlot”, “Moscato”, and “Cabernet” mean. Nowadays “Pinot” and even “Riesling” are familiar pals too. This is largely because the United States and other New World regions label their wines by varietal rather than geographic area.

Wine writer and merchant Frank Schoonmaker is credited with making the successful push for variety over geography in mid-20th century California. Robert Mondavi’s brilliant marketing skills made it a pandemic practice and now it’s a fact of the New World. What worked in Europe for ages just didn’t hold sway in the United States. But things don’t ever stay static, especially in wine. Just ask the Ancient Romans who poured their wine from amphorae!

Blends have hit the wine scene in a big way. This news is not new. Blends have arrived and are here to stay.  I am not speaking about traditional blends associated with geographic areas (i.e. Bordeaux, Chianti, etc.). The blends about which I speak may use traditional blends as a guide, but not as a rule. When it comes to non-traditional blends, rule breaking is preferred.

Over the past few decades we’ve exalted chefs as creative masters who express artistic craft and skill through food. Celebrity chefs are loved like rock stars. Adoring fans clamor for signed copies of famous chefs’ autobiographies as well as their cookbooks. Now the same is true for winemakers. The time, patience and skill demanded from a winemaker rival that of a chef. The winemaker is always at work even while vines are dormant and wine is aging in barrel. The waiting and the tending is careful and long. There’s no other process like it in the world and I am relieved to see winemakers getting the credit they are due. Creatively talented winemakers made the non-traditional blend movement a reality.

When it comes to wine it’s not always about how close we are to the vineyard (unless we are lucky enough to be in wine country), but rather the wine’s unique story. The story of a non-traditional blend helps us to feel like insiders, privy to our winemaker’s secret formula for success. The story is different every time. Winemakers can have many different reasons for creating a particular blend, or no reason at all. Sometimes the inherent characteristics of one grape complement those of another grape. Other times over- and under-ripe grapes of different varietals are combined to achieve balance. Then there’s blind intuition; something ineffable which cannot be explained in words -- only through taste.

I do not mean to insinuate that the rise of non-traditional blends precedes the end of varietal wine. Rather a new landscape has come to light. “Red blend”, “white blend”, or just “blend” is more inclusive to the casual wine drinker and does not require any additional wine study unless desired. The more people we get started on wine, the more friends we will have.

Below is a list of some non-traditional blends from New World producers both large and small.

LEFT: Mullineux Swartland 2014
Chenin Blanc, Clairette Blanche, Viognier, Semillon

Lightly oaked and lightly floral aromas of white blossom, white peach, green apple and lemon. With a touch of sweet fruit on the approach, this settles into an oaky, herbal and citrus noted blend of lemon, tangerine, honeyed melon and green apple with a wooded finish and tart acidity throughout.

Other non-traditional blends include:

syrah, cabernet sauvignon and grenache;

cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah;

tannat, cot and cabernet franc;

grenache, tempranillo, malbec, mourvedre and zinfandel;

barbera, sangiovese and nebbiolo;

syrah, malbec and petit verdot;

merlot, sangiovese and cabernet sauvignon;

sangiovese, montepulciano and syrah;

zinfandel and tannat;

garnacha, tempranillo and graciano

(Source: SNOOTH)