On Drink

The perfect blend

On the subtle harmony of multi-variety wines

The usual way to learn about wine, championed by various “educators” and “communicators”, is to focus on grape varieties and how they taste. You will learn how cabernet sauvignon smells of blackcurrants, sauvignon blanc is redolent of green peppers and gooseberries, and gewürztraminer smells of lychees. Though I don’t think I have ever actually tasted a lychee.

In this grape-led way of ordering wine, varieties are at an advantage from a marketing point of view if they are easy to pronounce — which partly explains the success of pinot grigio and malbec (that and consistency; pinot grigio is usually drinkable and a bit bland, and malbec from Argentina is almost always soft and delicious).

In contrast, crljenak kaštelanski, a Croatian grape, is going to struggle in the wine aisle of Tesco, but under its Italian name, primitivo, it flies off the shelf as easily as it trips off the tongue.

So ingrained is the idea that certain varieties have particular flavours and that’s the way to categorise wine, that it’s easy to forget this is a modern way of looking at things. Until recently where a wine came from was all-important. You might love red Burgundy or Bordeaux without necessarily knowing that the former was made with pinot noir and the latter with cabernet sauvignon and merlot. In fact, growers may not have even known what varieties were planted in their vineyards. It would have just been the local grapes.

Planting different varieties was a way to hedge your bets; some grapes would ripen better in different years. In Bordeaux, merlot, an earlier ripening variety, was there to flesh out cabernet in cooler years.

The resulting wine would probably have been beefed in the cellars of Bordeaux with something a little stronger from the south — a Rhône like Châteauneuf-du-Pape where 13 varieties are allowed or Rioja, largely made from tempranillo and grenache.

While today Bordeaux, Rioja and Châteauneuf-du-Pape are all famous names that most customers are happy to order without trepidation, more obscure blends are at a disadvantage. But I think their time has come.

My favourite wines from South Africa are almost all blends. These are real kitchen-sink wines. The reds might contain French, Spanish, and Portuguese varieties with a dose of South Africa’s very own pinotage.

The whites, though, are the pinnacle for me. They’re usually based on chenin blanc, a high acidity grape from the Loire which is the most widely-planted variety in the Cape, but after that the world’s your oyster. You can find verdelho from Madeira, the sherry grape palomino fino, riesling from Germany, or grenache blanc from the South of France.
At Brookdale, the young winemaker Kiara Scott makes the Sixteen Field Blend which contains — deep breath — chenin blanc, piquepoul, verdejo, clairette blanche, pinot gris, macabeo, grenache blanc, semillon, roussanne, vermentino, marsanne, petit manseng, albariño, palomino, chardonnay and grillo.

Whether they’re from hot climates or, the best blends tend to be subtle, almost ethereal wines

It’s proper old-school winemaking. Not only are all the grapes planted together, but they are pressed and fermented together too. On the label there’s no mention of the varietal make-up because it’s all about how they come together. Each grape brings something different to the party, be it fruit, weight or acidity.

Scott thinks that Brookdale has the only plantings of piquepoul, as in Picpoul de Pinet, in South Africa. It’s handy because it keeps its acidity even in very hot climates. As vineyard areas warm up, such grapes are invaluable. A couple of Iberian grapes, alvarinho and touriga nacional, have recently been permitted in Bordeaux to provide freshness in small quantities as the region gets too hot for merlot.

In Lebanon’s Bekaa valley it’s cinsault that plays this freshening role, featuring in everything from Chateau Musar to the everyday wine you get in a Lebanese restaurant. When eating on the Edgware Road, the ordinary Bekaa blend from producers like Kefraya or Ksara is usually a better option than top-of-the-range cabernets.

Blends also work brilliantly in marginal climates. Ripening a grape people have heard of in England, such as chardonnay or pinot noir, is hard and expensive because yields are low and the grapes are in demand for sparkling wine.

The old German varieties that were originally planted in England such as bacchus, ortega, faber, siegerrebe and huxelrebe tend to crop better. They might not have the star power of their French counterparts, but in a blend like Davenport Horsmonden, made on the Kent/Sussex border since the 1990s, they can pull together into something perfectly balanced.

Whether they’re from hot climates or, the best blends tend to be subtle, almost ethereal wines. You don’t get the bang of big varietal flavours you might get in, say, a Clare Valley riesling from Australia. Instead, they tend to be all about texture and harmony. They’re wines that get better with each sip and they age beautifully, too.

These are all wines where the whole is greater than the sum of their parts. So ignore the tyranny of variety-spotting, and, to paraphrase Tony Hatch’s immortal theme from Neighbours, remember that with a little understanding, you can find the perfect blend.

This article is taken from the December-January 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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