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Thoughts on blending

Thoughts on blending

There's an old saying in the wine business that blending is the process of making the total exceed the sum of the parts. I've seen it work, even done it a few times myself. Creating a good wine from a bunch of not so good parts is a true art. Most of my winemaking now is on a smaller scale, and I am lucky to have a bunch of really good parts to work with so now when I blend it is more a process of finding the best lots or best barrels and putting them together in a way that shows them to their best advantage.

I've just finished most of the blend tastings for the summer bottling season--both for myself and my clients--and the process this year has been a bit more work than usual. In part this is because the crop was larger in 2018 and there is simply more wine to deal with. This, combined with the happy circumstance of my clients selling more wine and therefore increasing production has made it more work to craft blends. Almost every wine brand has some sort of hierarchy in which some of the wines are meant to be better, or at least worthy of a higher price, than others. The criteria one uses to determine how to differentiate each wine is interesting, and often somewhat perplexing. What makes one wine more worthy than the next?

The easy answer is that the most expensive wine is the best wine. But how do you determine quality? Richness? Power/concentration? The longer I do this, the more vague my answers to these questions have become. One thing is certain, and that is that the "biggest" wine is almost never the best. I think most consumers expect, for example, the most expensive red wine in a given lineup to be the darker and richer than the others, but this doesn't really work where Pinot Noir is concerned. Concentration and "size" are important up to a point, but there are other, more important things, like balance, perfume, purity, and so on.

Of all the tasks associated with winemaking, finding the best wines in the cellar, either through lot or barrel selection or through blending, is the one of the most intuitive and hard to explain. I start out by identifying the wines I think fit best into each blend, put together a few trial blends, and from there it's a matter of trial and refinement. I almost always start out with an idea of how I want the wine to taste although usually not of the exact flavor descriptors. I've never said "I really want more cherry in the aromas of this wine." It's more like "I want this wine to be concentrated, and I want to maximize the aromatics and freshness that are already there." I really can't describe in any more specific way how I decide which wines go where, other than to say that I just sort of know. Which is a totally unsatisfactory answer but it also happens to be true. 

This process is different for every winemaker, and it can be puzzling to work on blends by committee. I've heard of blends that are put together by the numbers--flavor and chemistry analysis that aim to match the profile of other successful wines or the tasting preferences of focus groups. There's a place for that sort of thing, but I like to think that a more personal approach works best for the small guys like me. Hope so at least, because that's the way I do it!


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