The Art of the Blend
By Doug Fabbioli
One of the skills that I was fortunate to learn a number of decades ago was the process of blending wines. Blending is something that has happened in the industry for many generations: the French have their Bordeaux and Rhône blends, the Italians blend Chianti, Tuscans, and just about all their wines. Some older vineyards in California were planted in a traditional Italian way, with the different grape varietals interplanted in the same block of ground. When picking time came, the grapes were all picked at the same time and blended right away. Blending can create a better wine, each varietal bringing its own strengths and character to the finished product.
In some blends, such as a Bordeaux blend, there is a lot of tradition in the varietals and the style used. Staying within that structure is expected, and the wine produced is much more defined in the glass. I certainly respect the traditional blending with our estate-grown Tre Sorelle as well as our American Meritage, both of which are Bordeaux-style blends. On the other hand, it is a pleasure to break out of the traditional blending structure to create something different like our Raspberry Merlot. Blending various fruits with traditional wine grapes is nothing new, but was often done for cheaper products, using the sweetness and fruit to move lower quality wine. Little did I know when I was playing with it that I would create a signature wine for us!
One of the keys to blending wines is to prepare ahead of time in order to make good decisions. Once two wines are blended together, there is no separating them. I will pull samples ahead of time, and clear my schedule so I can concentrate on the flavors and the process. I also like to have a couple of people with me who can taste and learn the process—I don’t taste or blend in a vacuum. As I taste, I know I am looking to make wines that fit the labels and products that I have already created. With a Cabernet Franc for instance, I will look to blend in a little structure in the middle with some Petit Verdot, or maybe add some finishing tannins with some Cabernet Sauvignon. Sometimes it may be acid that the wine needs, so knowing each of the components will make the trial and error process a little more efficient. Oak character is another factor to keep in mind, but it can be added after blending by shifting the wine into newer barrels of the right kind of oak. As with so much in wine-making, experience and patience play important roles.
Another key part to blending is having a lower tier wine to blend the extras into. We have a wine called Padrino which is made up of our “left over” varietals. I get customers asking about Padrino on a regular basis. It is never the same twice because it is a combination of the pieces that are left from blending. Some years it may be more Tannat, other years it may be Cabernet Franc with a few other odd pieces. Some years all the pieces fit and I had nothing left over at the end of the process, and in those years we do not have a Padrino.
Starting the blending process with great base wines is clearly the most important part. Some vintages will be more challenging than others, but recognizing that a little bit of “this” can really help out with “that” is seen as early as on the crush pad as the grapes are going into the fermenter. Blending is the artistic point where the paint hits the canvas, but the paint is made in the vineyard as the grapes grow. Being skilled at “making paint” is the key to having a great wine that needs very little tinkering. Let’s raise a glass to the art in the wine!