Single-variety wines may make for some small talk, but in most cases, blended wines are better. Which is why, nearly everywhere, for a wine to label itself using the name of a grape—Chardonnay, Syrah, et. al—appellation laws generally allow some blending. In California, up to 25% of the label grape doesn’t have to be the label grape and even in beloved Burgundy, regional to Grand Cru levels, not only can 15% of a red wine be something other than Pinot noir, it doesn’t even have to be a red wine grape—Chardonnay, Pinot blanc and Pinot gris are all permitted.
Now, they’ll all claim they don’t do it, and maybe they don’t. But I am reminded of a marathon drinking session with the owner of a local Chinese restaurant in which he confessed his guiltiest secret: A lot of Chinese restaurants (including his) claim that they don’t use MSG, but everybody does.
Speaking of MSG…
Mourvedre/Syrah/Grenache is sometimes called the Holy Trinity of blends; in Southern Rhone’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape it is the foundational trio, but since it’s the Pope’s new castle, we’ll avoid the blasphemous nickname and refer to the threesome instead as the Mack Daddy of blends. With exceptions, of course, Syrah contributes spice and dark fruit; Grenache potency and red fruit and Mourvedre tannin and length. The famed AOL can legally use up to ten other grapes in the blend, but it is fair to say than for the most part, they are also-rans.
Every year, the blend is slightly different, as it is in Bordeaux—another place where the synergistic sum is considered better than the parts.
The idea is that wine, for the most part, is a big pot luck dinner where every variety of grape brings something to the part. The art of blending is to lessen the need for luck in the pot.
Ca n’Estruc L’Equilibrista, Catalunya, 2010
Francisco Martí Badía knows the precarious act of balancing from both sides of the shop aisle. Co-owner of Vila Viniteca—perhaps the most renowned of Spanish wine distributors as well as a delicatessen and retail wine outlet—the Barcelona-based Martí also cultivates 60 sunny acres on the slopes of Montserrat. There, his vines (some more than eighty years old) produce an emblematic Catalunyan blend of Syrah, Garnatxa Negra, and Carinyena; proportions change with the vintage, and as a result, the tightrope he walks to produce a consistent and top-shelf wine.
To my palate, the bright, aggressively youthful-tasting wines of Catalunya have a tendency to carry off the balance blend better than the wines of Southern Rhone. Where the latter can be rough and tumble, raw and restrained in youth and leathery-rich with age, similar blends from Northern Spain come across a vibrant and eager throughout a good portion of their lives. This is a biased and possibly silly statement, granted; just a trend that I have noticed at a number of tastings over the past few years.
Equilibrista is Catalan for ‘tightrope walker’, and the label depicts a colorful one on a sagging high wire above a safety net of fruits. Indeed, the bounty of fruits are reliable for this wine; a juicy cornucopia of taut, tarry plum, blackberry and raspberry with a slightly herbal edge; fennel in particular. Structure is firm, tannins are spicy, mouthfeel is electric—above all, despite five years having passed since vintage, the wine remains youthful and spry.
Wine has been made in the shadow of Montserrat for nearly five hundred years; that’s many generations of winemakers on the tightrope of balance who have followed in their father’s footsteps.
Here’s a toast to it having worked out better for them than it did for the Wallendas.
It’s a shame that the concept of blending is often venerated in red wines but mostly forgotten in whites.
All the best white wines in Friuli are blends, penalized in the market for not wearing their varietal heart on their sleeves.