If you think red blends are the latest trend in wine, think again. Wines have been blended for thousands of years. What is new is our tendency to identify wine by grape varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir) rather than the place they come from (like Napa Valley or Burgundy). Despite our desire to place grape variety first, winemakers around the world want us to know that the exercise of finding the ideal balance of grape varieties in every vintage—the so-called perfect blend—is the true art form.
Michel Rolland, one of the famous names in wine, says jokingly, “Blending is my cardio!” Blending has been a lifelong pursuit for Rolland, the original “Flying Winemaker,” who has logged many miles over a 40-year career to make some of the greatest blends of all time. A driving force behind Clos de los Siete at the foot of the Andes Mountains in the Uco Valley of Argentina, Rolland recently joined leading winemakers James MacPhail of The Calling in Sonoma and Glenn Hugo of Girard Winery in Napa Valley to share some collective insights on the art of blending.
Rolland found his vocation in the Bordeaux region of France, the global benchmark for red wines, especially blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Led by the skill of today’s winemakers and access to beautiful fruit, Rolland says, “We are living in the golden age of blending.” His latest release, 2018 Clos de los Siete (C7), combines 55% Malbec, the superstar grape of Argentina, with no less than five other red varieties: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. The result is a delicious concentration of flavors and aromas that layer into each other with silky depth. Clos de los Siete is also an exercise in collaboration; each year, Rolland meets with the team at four individual wine estates to select the best grapes for his signature wine, a multiyear process that starts with tasting in the vineyard and ends with months of trials in the cellar. In the end, Rolland makes the final decision about which grapes will make the cut. After years on the wine roads of the world, he finds that there really are no shortcuts to make blending easier and only one universal truth: “You have to make wine that reflects its origins; that is success.”
Following a first career in restaurants, winemaker Glenn Hugo of Girard Winery found a natural affinity for blending grapes through constant tasting and adjustment, much like a master chef. Hugo balances natural components such as acidity, fruit and tannin with the subtlety of barrel aging. Known for his small lot blends, Hugo sources from almost every sub-appellation in Napa Valley, including many expressions of Cabernet Sauvignon from hallowed vineyard sites in St. Helena, Oakville, Diamond Mountain and Pope Valley. Girard’s top red blend, Artistry, combines Cabernet Sauvignon grapes with Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Hugo works on the blend of the four grapes that make Artistry at the same time as Girard Cabernet Sauvignon, tinkering with hundreds of small vineyard lots to unlock the complexity he looks for in every vintage. The nuances truly matter, and Hugo is quick to remind us that as in fine cooking, every component plays a role. “Petit Verdot speaks softly but carries a big stick; even the smallest amount can change the profile entirely,” he says.
Blending is as much a consideration with a single varietal wine. Winemaker James MacPhail of The Calling in Sonoma works with cooler climate grapes such as Pinot Noir. For MacPhail, “blending always starts with vineyard selection.” It’s a common misconception that blending is easier with only one variety in the mix. Russian River Valley is a complex growing area with a range of cool and warmer sites, enabling MacPhail to echo the subtlety of climate, soils and elevation to choose between different sites to find the ideal complement of Pinot Noir fruit. Made from 100% Pinot Noir, The Calling Russian River Valley 2019 is sourced from seven distinct vineyards, including three blocks in Dutton Ranch. Each of these vineyards unlocks part of the complexity of the wine. Vineyards from the warmer end of Russian River Valley contribute ripe fruit elements, cooler areas bring strong minerality and structural backbone, and high-altitude vines add complexity and structure. This generous interplay makes for a lively but well-balanced blend that bursts with flavors, ranging from fresh strawberry to rich plum and orange zest.
It is impossible to understate how many decisions go into blending wine. It takes years to build a great blend, first in the vineyard and then in the cellar. There is nothing simple about the process, where vineyard selection is just the beginning of a journey that involves hundreds of elements.
Helen Gregory is the founder and president of Gregory + Vine. She has worked in strategic brand management and communications for beverage industry leaders such as Moët Hennessy USA, Rémy Cointreau and STOLI, and has led award-winning hospitality, beverage and lifestyle campaigns for prestige clients from the European Union to Argentina, Australia, Chile, Israel, South Africa and across the United States.
2018 CLOS DE LOS SIETE (C7)
BY MICHEL ROLLAND (UCO VALLEY)
55% MALBEC, 19% MERLOT, 10% CABERNET SAUVIGNON, 12% SYRAH,
2% PETIT VERDOT, 2% CABERNET FRANC. DEEP RED WITH AROMAS OF
DARK FRUIT AND DELICATE HINTS OF SPICE; SILKY AND FULL-BODIED.
THE CALLING RUSSIAN RIVER VALLEY
PINOT NOIR 2019
100% PINOT NOIR. MEDIUM-BODIED, BURSTS WITH RED CHERRY FRUIT,
BRIGHT ACIDITY AND BALANCED OAK. NOTES OF RED PLUM, STRAWBERRY
AND CLOVE ON THE NOSE; BING CHERRY, SPICE AND ORANGE RIND TO TASTE.
2018 GIRARD ARTISTRY
69% CABERNET SAUVIGNON, 13% MERLOT, 9% MALBEC, 6% CABERNET FRANC,
3% PETIT VERDOT. FRESH RED FRUIT AROMAS; BLACKBERRY, CHERRY AND
BAKING SPICE TO TASTE. LONG, VELVETY AND WELL-INTEGRATED.