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Wine Blending Q & A with our Winemaker

by David on April 16, 2010

There are so many ways to look at blending wine: Blending grape varieties, different vineyard lots, locations, barrel lots and more. I sat down with Geoff Gorsuch, our Winemaker, and also Jeff Booth, our consulting winemaker, to discuss the endless possibilities.

Q: I think when we hear the term blending, we tend to think first about blending grape varieties. Can you talk about some of the other ways wine is blended?

A: You can blend different sections of the vineyard, whether or not they’re the same variety – maybe it’s a different clone of the variety or it has different exposure; you can choose different barrel lots: New barrels, older barrels, different coopers, toasting levels or forests; you can blend vintages if you want; you can blend different geographic areas together to broaden the palette of flavors, for instance blending the Yountville AVA with the Carneros AVA, Napa Valley with Russian River or even blending grapes or wines from different states together. As long as you label the wine accurately, anything goes!

Q: It seems like some varieties, like Pinot Noir, aren’t often blended with other varieties, where Cabernet and Syrah are blended all the time. Why do you think that is?

A: Part of it is tradition. Classically, in Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon is blended with other Bordeaux varieties such as Merlot, Cabernet Franc, etc. Or Syrah, a variety that comes from the Rhone, is traditionally blended with Grenache, Carignane or Mourvedre. Perhaps these traditions became traditions because blending improves the wine. We’re always looking for balance in the wine and if the Cabernet is too tannic we know that Merlot has a rounding effect. Also, in difficult climates, a relatively early-ripening red, like Merlot, is a form of crop insurance. If your Cabernet gets rained out, at least you already have the Merlot in the barn.

Q: Our Cabernets are often 100%. Is that by design or is it just the way it turns out?

A: It’s just the way it’s turned out. We always want to make the best possible wine we can, so we make trial blends with various amounts of the other Bordeaux varieties included and then we go with what tastes best, has good complexity and has the best balance. I also want to think about the possibility of making a separate bottling of one of the blending grapes like Cabernet Franc. Do I have enough to blend and also showcase the variety separately? We just released the 2007 Estate Cabernet and it’s 91% Cabernet Sauvignon and the rest Cabernet Franc. That’s what tasted best to us. We also managed to bottle a small amount of varietal Cab Franc.

Q: There are also different vineyard lots and clones of the same variety available. How does that work?

A: I always keep all the vineyard lots separate intitially so I can see how they turn out. Then, later, we can think about blending them together. At that point we don’t really think of them as different clones, necessarily. We just think of them as candidates and put together the blend we like the best. But, certainly, the fact that we have three different clones of Cabernet on our estate means we’ve got a potentially very complex blend without blending in other varieties. We just have to taste and find out.

Q: Can you explain how you set up a blending trial?

A: If, for instance, we were working on a Napa Valley Cabernet blend, we get samples of all the wines in the cellar that we consider to be candidates – the different varieties, clones and barrel lots. We taste them all individually to get a sense of what we’re working with. As we do this, we have a flavor profile in mind for the finished wine and we think about what role any of these samples might play.

It can start out kind of random – a little of this with a little of that just to see what happens. Later, it becomes a process of elimination. There are always candidates that are quite good, but not right for this particular blend, so we begin narrowing things down. It’s really kind of fun. We also like to compare our trial blends to a bottle of the previous vintage or two, to see if there’s good continuity. If folks have loved our Napa Cab we don’t want to turn any sharp corners, stylistically, and disappoint them. This can take a little time or a lot. We sometimes come up with a terrific blend in the first round of tasting trials. Other times it takes repeated trials to get there.

Q: How do you know which barrels to buy in advance of harvest? There’s usually a barrel blend for any given wine.

A: This is a a matter of getting to know the various coopers (barrel builders) over many vintages and knowing what characteristics to expect. Of course barrels, like wine, are agricultural products so they aren’t perfectly consistent from year to year. However, like winemakers, the coopers tend to have an established house style. The way they select and harvest the wood, season it, cooper it and toast it will be fairly consistent from year to year. Over the years we’ve come to prefer certain coopers for the attributes their barrels bring to our wines. But, the mix isn’t necessarily the same for the barrels we buy to age Chardonnay vs. the Syrah. And, we like to keep our eyes open. Just about every year we’ll try a new cooper – just buy a barrel or two – to see if it might be a good fit for us. Experience with both the wine and the cooper is the best way for us to make smart decisions when it’s barrel-buying time.

Q: How do you know how to time the blending? What kinds of advantages or disadvantages are there to blending early or waiting?

A: I believe there’s a benefit to giving the blend time to integrate in the barrels before bottling, so we usually start doing these blend trials at least six months before bottling to get a sense of what we’re trying to do and then we just go from there – these trials can be repeated and tweaked. Once we have a blend that we like it’s good to leave it alone for awhile and then come back to it to either confirm that we’re happy with it or decide to play with it some more. But, once we actually build the blend in tanks in the cellar there’s no turning back.

We can’t alter the blend too much when we’re getting close to bottling time because we have to get the labels approved with the federal government and then get them printed up in time for bottling. Bottling is really difficult to schedule so we have to keep that in the back of our minds.

Q: Geoff, can you tell us about why we blend the tank fermented and barrel fermented Chardonnay?

A: I don’t want to put too much oak on the fruit. The blend varies a bit from vintage to vintage, but approximately half of the juice is fermented in a stainless-steel tank and that wine is very fruity and perfumed – very pure. The other half is barrel fermented, which makes a bigger Chardonnay that’s richer, rounder, toastier, spicier and has more vanillan. Later, I bring the two together for the right balance of fruitiness, complexity and oak.

Q: Can you talk about the blend of our 2006 AmerItal? The blend of Sangiovese and Barbera is unconventional, but so delicious!

A: That’s one of those things we just stumbled on. We put together the blend just for the heck of it and then realized it was really good and also very food friendly. It just happened, but now I’m working on doing it again!

Q: Can you explain what a Meritage blend is and how it goes when you’re working with several varieties? Is it confusing?

A: A Meritage blend is a traditional blend of the major Bordeaux varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. You don’t have to use them all – the guideline is that no one variety can make up more than 90% of the blend. We’ve enjoyed using all five so far.

Deciding on proportions depends upon your goal. If you want to make a big, beefy style of wine, probably Cabernet Sauvignonwill dominate the blend. If you’re looking for elegance, Merlot and Cabernet Franc are good candidates. With Malbec and Petit Verdot a little goes a long way. Single digit percentages of those varieties will have a big impact on the color, body and spice.

Q: Speaking of elegance, with ?ROS, you’re looking for magic. How do you approach making that blend?

A: ?ROS is our flagship, our benchmark, wine. It’s the most complex, yet it can be the most elegant. We select the components carefully – we’re looking for the most interesting, flavor-packed wine we can make. By the time we’re done with the blend it’s exquisitely balanced – not too much tannin, not too much acid, easy to drink but with great complexity.

Logistically, we look for potential ?ROS lots first in the blending season – the ones with layers of flavor and elegance. Since this is a Meritage and we also make the Estate Cabernet and the Howell Mountain Cab we want each wine to have a distinct personality. So, taking out the ?ROS components first doesn’t really hurt our chance of making excellent blends for those other Cabernet-based wines. It’s really fun to have that challenge, as winemakers, and it’s a feeling of real accomplishment on those years when it comes together.

Q: Once you’ve created the perfect blend in the lab, how do you translate those very small lots in the lab to production-sized lots?

A: You’ve just got to keep a really accurate account of how that blend came together because it’s kind of complicated with all the different barrel lots. We use graduated cylinders to measure all the different components that go into the blend and then it’s just a matter of translating it into percentages to make the larger blend in the cellar. Of course nothing is bottled from barrels. The completed master blend is stored in stainless-steel tanks until it’s ready for bottling.

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