When selecting a wine to bring to a social event, a red blend often stands out as an excellent choice. Its versatility, crowd-pleasing qualities, and adaptability to various culinary pairings make it a smart option for gatherings with diverse tastes. Red blends not only provide a reliable and consistent flavor profile, but also serve as a great conversation starter, thanks to their complex nature and the intriguing blend of different grape varieties. Plus, their accessibility ensures that you can bring a quality bottle without breaking the bank, making them the perfect companion for a memorable social occasion.
Tackling the idea of complexity, balance, and versatility first, consider that red blends are often made by combining different grape varieties. Each grape contributes its own set of flavors, aromas, and characteristics, building a multi-layer and intriguing experience. You may detect a range of fruit, spice, and earthy notes. This layering of flavors is what is known as complexity. Now, when the winemaker skillfully blends flavors, taking into consideration factors like acid, tannin, oak aging, and/or other production choices to where there is harmony, we say that the wine is in balance. This balance can make red blends more approachable and enjoyable to a wider range of palates, as they may not be as dominated by a single grape's characteristics, which again reaches back to the idea of being a crowd pleaser, which is able to satisfy a wide range of palates. Meaning red blends are versatile.
A wide number of grapes gains a wide number of styles produced, then couples with the regionality, to offer a different profile (even if they are the same grapes).
Let us take a classic French example of a Rhone Valley blend, the 2021 Domaine Grand Veneur Les Champauvins, that is constructed from 70 percent Grenache, 20 percent Syrah, and 10 percent Mourvèdre. This one draws its complexity from the heavy Grenache influence with its red cherry, raspberry, and cherry liquor aromas and flavors. It goes on to express oak, tobacco, vanilla, and chocolate from the again process. The black pepper and dried herbs are the result of the Syrah and Mourvèdre. This is an elegant wine with soft tannin, medium acidity, medium-plus body, and a long, lingering finish of dried herbs, earth, chocolate, and coffee. It hales from just a few yards outside the Châteauneuf du Pape appellation in Côtes du Rhône.
Take the same grapes, change the percentages and the location of the vineyard to South Africa and meet the 2021 Lubanzi Red Blend, as a secondary point to complexity, balance, and versatility. This one is constructed from 75 percent Shiraz, 18 percent Grenache, and 7 percent Mourvèdre. Lubanzi uses the name Shiraz, instead of calling the grape Syrah (which is the same grape), and is telling you this wine is going to be fuller in fruit texture and flavors over the French counterpart. And indeed, the description goes on to say it has aromas of fruit and spice, with plums, blackberry, blueberry, bramble, and hints of ground coffee. On the palate are additional flavors of black pepper (which is characteristics of Syrah/ shiraz), allspice, and crunchy dark fruit a with big silky tannins.
There is a difference between weather and climate. Climate refers to the average temperatures, sunny vs. cloudiness, average rainfall that a regions experiences over an extended period of time, like decades of time. Weather refers to a specific season, a specific year. Genetically speaking, given a certain climate and soil, viticulture can dictate what varieties are capable of growing in the region. Given the weather, some years a particular variety will outshine others around it.
Next let us tackle the idea of consistency and innovation. There are some wine consumers that seek out wines that are the same flavors regardless of what happens weather-wise in the vineyard. Consistency is achieved by adjusting the percentage of grapes in the blend. Meaning that each grape brings a certain characteristic to the blend party. Typically, what grows together often is used to complement that difference between vintages, creating consistency and keeping a loyal following for that wine. Classically, in Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon is grown alongside Merlot for this reason. Cabernet Sauvignon brings texture, tannins, and power. Merlot brings sugar (to help in increasing the alcohol amount as yeast eats the sugar), silkiness, and elegance to the blend.
Outside of the Old-World wine regions, countries like the US do not hold traditions. Meaning that if a grape is capable of growing given the climate and soil, let’s see if it makes a quality wine there. Out in California, winemakers are free to be innovative, or free to experiment and create unique, distinctive wines. This can lead to exciting discoveries and new flavor profiles that capture the imagination of wine enthusiasts. Consider the 2019 Scheid Family Wines Redwick Estate Red Blend from Monterey, California. This one has a wild recipe of grapes to include Merlot, Zinfandel, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, Grenache, and Sangiovese. There are aromas of blackberry, violets, black plum, blueberry, red fruit blur, and allspice. Additions on the palate are raspberries, chocolate, vanilla, and hints of allspice.
The Redwick may seem like the wildest mix of grapes. But again, each grape brings a special characteristic to the collective blend. When wine makers do these kinds of blends they are also considering accessibility of the fruit and a targeted on-the-shelf price to capture a specific audience. Each of these varieties has a different tolerance to heat, amount of rain, need to be sprayed, or need to be hand-cultivated (individuals to be pruned). All of these points have a cost. The more a vineyard caretaker can do from inside a combine, the lower the price, the easier it is to purchase.
Due to the red blend’s balanced and approachable nature, red blends can appeal to both novice and experienced wine drinkers. They offer a middle ground between the boldness of certain single-varietal wines and the complexity of some blends. Consider 2018 Tacchino Buongiorno Rosso, DOC from Piedmonte, Italy, that is constructed from 40 percent Barbera, 40 percent Dolcetto, and 20 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. This one is an easy drink with medium acidity, fine-grain tannins and flavors of black currants, blackberry, dark cherry, cranberry, and slate on the nose. The novice wine drinker would be satisfied. The intellectual might be a bit more curious to experience what a Dolcetto is all about.
Last thought is to touch on tradition and heritage when crafting a red blend. Reaching back to the Côtes du Rhône from above, the region of France is appellated for a certain set of 13 (or 20 depending on how you count them) grapes allowed to be cultivated. Meaning you can grow other grapes like say Tempranillo here, but you would not be able to call the Tempranillo wine a “quality wine” from the region, there is no heritage of it. Although, in the region of Mendoza, Argentina, there are places of the world where the “heritage” has been a recent invention. So, in the wine world 100 years ago can still be recent. The Italians from the Lombardy region (northern Italy) have at times migrated out of Italy to Mendoza (of many areas but is the case in point) for a variety of reasons—economics, persecution, religious freedom. They brought with them their wine grapes to cultivate in their new home—Bonarda to be specific. The result seemed to be exquisite, far better than what Lombardy could have produced. It made sense then to start blending the Bonarda with the Melbec to improve the quality in the wine. Today it is fairly common to see this blend. See for yourself with the 2017 Belasco de Baquedano Llama Old Vine Blend that offers aromas and flavors of dark berry, chocolate, and violets, with a firm structure and juicy finish.