In my “Wine Naming and Labeling” article, I talked about how people’s knowledge of wine grape names (e.g., Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) is a relatively new phenomenon that resulted from the growth over the last 30 years in the availability, quality and popularity of “New World” wines. I also talked about how this relatively new knowledge of grape names has sparked some interesting discussions around blended wines (wines made from several different grape types) vs. varietal wines (wines made almost entirely from a single grape variety).
A lot of people wonder which is better. The quick answer is they’re both good.
French Tradition Supports Both
Blended wines – The Bordeaux region is all about blending. A Red Bordeaux is a combination of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot.
Varietal wines – A Red Burgundy is 100% Pinot Noir.
Somewhere in between – The Rhone region features blended and varietal wines. A popular Rhone wine blend is made up of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre. You can also find beautiful varietal wines such as Viognier and Syrah.
Blended Wines in the “New World”
In the “New World” (non-Europe), most wine makers, when blending wines, do their best to emulate European blends. You can find many Bordeaux blends, for example, coming out of Napa and Sonoma.
The problem with “New World” wine makers’ emulating French blends is that the environment where the grapes are grown, or terroir, is entirely different here vs. there. And it doesn’t really matter where here is. Suffice it to say that there isn’t a terroir outside of Bordeaux that looks exactly like Bordeaux.
If your goal is to produce a wine that tastes like a Red Bordeaux, you might need to use different grapes altogether. Given the terroir here, it might make more sense to combine some Bordeaux grapes with some non-Bordeaux grapes.
It’s fun to try Bordeaux blends from many different regions to see which taste most like a French Bordeaux. You are likely to find some that taste quite different but quite good.
The Difference between Blended and Varietal Wines
What’s the difference in taste? Blended wines can be a bit softer and smoother than varietal wines. An intense Cabernet, for example, can be softened beautifully by the addition of Merlot.
Some wine makers are softening their single-varietal wines by combining grapes from different regions.
Increasingly, you can find variety blends, regional blends or a combination of the two.
Should We Care?
If you like a blended wine, drink it. Blended wines are not “second class” citizens. However, if you wish to extend your wine knowledge and thus enhance your wine experience, you should try varietal wines on a regular basis. It’s hard to get to know the characteristics of Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, when you drink only Cab/Merlot blends. You never know if what you’re tasting is coming from the Cab or the Merlot.
Wine is all about enjoyment. Discover what you like and celebrate that. Try new wines all the time to expand your repertoire.