Blends are your friends…
… and other truths discovered outside single varietal wines
Catchy sayings work. I know that I regularly think, “L'eggo my Eggo,” as I walk down the freezer aisle. I can sing the jingles for Oscar Mayer bologna and Almond Joy bars, even though I'm not a fan of either.
It seems to be equally true in the world of wine. Case in point: I've had countless guests come into Michigan By The Bottle Tasting Room and proudly pronounce “Gewürztraminer” correctly because the staff at Brys Estate taught them “Girls are meaner” as a mnemonic device.
One of my own favorite catchphrases these days is “blends are your friends.” It's my standard opening line when someone balks at trying a blend just because it bears a proprietary name that doesn't explicitly spell out the grapes it contains.
Cabernet sauvignon is easy; people are accustomed to it, it's ubiquitous, they know what it generally tastes like, there's little thinking involved. It’s the same with merlot and syrah/shiraz. In Michigan, many red drinkers also are familiar with cabernet franc's flavor profile, considering the grape is widespread here, and often easier to find than straight varietal cab sauv.
But the beauty of blends is that no matter how great any of these grapes are on their own, when brought together, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” says Dave Miller, the owner and winemaker at White Pine Winery in St. Joseph whose Ph.D. work focused on grapevine photosynthesis. Where one grape is lacking in spice or ripeness or fruit-forwardness, its counterparts can fill the void.
“I find blends more interesting (than single-varietal wines), given the increased complexity,” says Lorenzo Lizarralde, owner and winemaker at Chateau Aeronautique in Jackson. “One varietal may bring a great bouquet and aroma, one varietal might contribute an excellent mid-palate flavor and mouthfeel, and a third varietal might bring a nice finish to the wine, resulting in a trifecta.”
When it comes to reds in particular, blends “usually deliver more than single-varietal wines,” Miller says. “By ‘more,’ I mean, more complex aroma, better mouthfeel and finish, and more complex flavor. It's interesting that white wines tend to stand alone well. Wines like chardonnay and riesling are wonderful, and it's hard to imagine improving them by blending.
“With red wines, we are looking for something more complex, and it's often difficult to achieve the greatest complexity with a single grape.”
Blending also can help winemakers deal with ripening variability, says Charlie Edson, co-owner/winemaker at Bel Lago Winery on the Leelanau Peninsula.
“Each variety ripens at a different time and often at a different rate; this is especially true in a cool climate like ours in the Leelanau Peninsula,” he says. “Blending provides an opportunity to pick and choose which varieties and in which percentages will make the best wine and take advantage of the blend that will create the best wine.”
Even Better Together
Cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot are Lizarralde's favorite grapes to blend because “they are three varietals that are close enough in favor and character to complement each other without competing, yet different enough to broaden the range of nuances in the final bland,” he says. “Over the centuries, the best varietals have been identified; there is no need to reinvent the wheel.” (He's referring to Bordeaux-style blends traditional to the eponymous region in France — see glossary below.)
“Each variety brings something special to the blend,” he says. “Merlot has soft, silky tannins and voluptuous mouthfeel and subtle red fruit aromas. Cab franc has more perfumed aromas and ‘sweet’ tannins — almost like pinot noir in Michigan's climate — and black fruit flavor: blueberry, black cherry. Cab sauv brings firm tannins to the palate and a bit of the bell pepper found in classic cool-climate Bordeaux blends.”
In terms of their shortcomings, “Merlot can be overly soft, cab franc can lack in mid-palate weight, and cab sauv can lack fruit intensity in our climate, which is more like Bordeaux than Napa,” Miller adds. It’s all balanced out via blending.
Michael Altesleben, vintner at St. Ambrose Cellars in Beulah, considers cabernet franc and merlot “a winning pair.”
“Cabernet franc lends complexity and structure, while merlot softens and smoothes the Cabernet out,” he says.
At Bel Lago — where Edson grows more than 100 grape varieties — it's more of a question of what's not blended than what is.
“It’s easier for me to name the list of the reds we grow that I do not like to blend: Pinot noir brings a complete and distinctive profile and structure that I really enjoy, so I prefer it unblended,” he says.
Virtually everything else ends up in a blend.
“We start with a basic idea about the flavor profile that we desire for a particular wine … near harvest, I taste the grapes in the vineyard prior to harvest for flavor development, ripeness level, skin and seed tannins, overall ripeness, and then flag each variety to be picked for the wine that we think it will work best in,” he explains. “They are then harvested separately and processed into that wine. We have been blending most of the reds for a number of years, so we understand how they go together.”
Blends Behind the Bar
So are blends more daunting for new wine tasters than the old standby single varietals?
Lizarralde says he sees many of his visitors reaching for wines labeled with one grape over blends, but he and his staff urge them to branch out.
“We, as a species, do tend to gravitate toward the familiar,” he says. “The beauty of wine tasting is the opportunity to broaden one's horizons by tasting wines he or she may otherwise never purchase.”
At St. Ambrose, Tasting Room Manager Cindy Bizon says it seems to depend on visitors' wine-tasting comfort levels. Those who have been around the block tend to have already developed an affinity for blends from past encounters.
“Typically, experienced tasters like it all — the drier, the better,” she says.
Miller, on the other hand, says he feels most tasters “are pretty open-minded about the wines and don't have a predetermined preference for varietals or blends. They taste, and decide to buy based on what they like.”
When guests request specific varietals he doesn’t have, such as malbec, Miller says he pours them the wine that most resembles the grape they're seeking, and explains the characteristics they have in common.
Because Pinot Noir is the only single varietal red available at Bel Lago, guests have no choice but to be adventurous with sampling blends there. Edson says their Bel Lago Red and Tempesta — both cabernet franc-based blends containing myriad other grapes — have developed a significant following.
“This acceptance of both somewhat verifies our decision to rely on blends,” he says. “We certainly see no resistance by our customers to accepting the blends; in fact, there seems to be a real interest in them. This would support what I read in the trade press about the increase in the popularity of red blends over the last few years.”
Edson also believes local wine lovers may be more open to trying blends due to the generally lower number of reds available at Michigan wineries — a result of the state's cool climate.
For red blend newbies, Altesleben urges experimentation.
“Don't be intimidated,” he says. “You don't have to be a wine connoisseur to enjoy a nice blend. Learning about wine can — and should — be fun, and it doesn't have to feel snobby.”
Red Blends Around Town
For wine lovers eager to see what Michigan can do with blends, there are plenty of options.
Besides St. Ambrose's Crescendo, Altesleben recommends Brys Estate's Signature Red, Black Star Farms' Leorie Vineyard Merlot/Cabernet Franc, and Bowers Harbor Vineyards' 2896 Langley. Edson, too, advocates for Leorie, along with Wyncroft Wine's Shou.
Miller says a Bordeaux-style blend, Serendipity, is his best-seller among his reserve reds; elsewhere, he suggests Chateau Aeronautique's Aviatrix Crimson, Domaine Berrien Cellars' Crown of Cab, and Bel Lago's Tempesta.
Asked about their favorite red blends throughout the state, MichiganByTheBottle.com fans recommended a mix of dry, sweet, and semi-dry reds, some using exclusively vinifera grapes and some incorporating hybrids. Wines earning mention included Blustone Vineyards' Ad Lib, Chateau Fontaine's Woodland Red and Big Paw Red, Left Foot Charley's Cadia, Peninsula Cellars' Detention, Chateau Chantal's Naughty Red and Nice Red, Shady Lane Cellars' Coup de Rouge, St. Ambrose's Cottage Red, and Good Harbor Vineyards' Collaboration, along with the already noted Crown of Cab, Shou, Aviatrix Crimson, and Tempesta.
Consumers who love red blends can look forward to even bigger and better things in the future, says Miller.
“Michigan red wines have come a long way in the last 15 years, and just keep getting better as growers and winemakers learn more about their production,” he says. “We are just scratching the surface of exploring site/variety interaction and impact on wines, blends, and even varieties to use here. I can hardly wait to continue exploring Michigan's potential to produce great reds alongside our world-class whites.”
When drinking red blends, here are a few terms that you may encounter that can help you navigate what to expect from those wines:
• Bordeaux-style: A wine characterized as “Bordeaux-style” means it's produced in a style similar to wines made in Bordeaux, France. A Bordeaux-style red blend will contain two or more of the grapes permissible in true Bordeaux wines: Cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit verdot, and/or malbec (and, in rare instances, carménère).
• Meritage: A Meritage is New World wine produced with Bordeaux-permissible grapes; however, wineries technically must join the Meritage Alliance and pay a fee to use the title on their labels. While many do, many others opt to christen their wines with proprietary names instead (such as Lizarralde’s Aviatrix Crimson) or just name the grapes included (such as Mackinaw Trail's Cabernet Merlot).
Other qualifiers for using the Meritage title: No one grape can make up more than 90 percent of the blend, and no other grape besides “noble” Bordeaux grapes can appear in the blend. (Besides the grapes listed above, the Meritage Alliance also include the rare St. Macaire and Gros Verdot in their list of permitted grapes for a red Meritage.)
Pro tip: Sound like you're in the know by remembering that Meritage rhymes with “heritage.” The Alliance, founded in the late 1980s by a group of American winemakers, coined the term by mashing the words "merit" and "heritage" together.
• Claret: A British term for a Bordeaux-style red that you'll occasionally see used outside of the U.K. (Bowers Harbor Vineyards has a wine by this name). Think "grin and bear it" for the pronunciation on this one.
Cortney Casey is a certified sommelier and co-founder of MichiganByTheBottle.com, a website and online community that promotes the entire Michigan wine industry. She’s also co-owner of Michigan By The Bottle Tasting Room, tasting rooms operated in partnership with multiple Michigan wineries, located in Shelby Township, Royal Oak, and Auburn Hills. Contact her at email@example.com.