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BLENDING WINE: at Channing Daughters and Beyond

Originally Posted: August 04, 2004

Christopher Tracy

Blending is a crucial aspect in the production of fine wine. All of the great wines in the world are the product of some sort of blending process. This could be the blending of different barrels, vats and tanks, different vineyard plots, different vineyards, different regions, or different grape varieties. At some point a decision has to be made as to what will go with what.

There are two words in French that are associated with blending: 'coupage' and 'assemblage'. The Oxford Companion to Wine says coupage "means literally 'cutting' and retains a slightly pejorative overtone, tending to be reserved for wine blending at its least glamorous". It defines assemblage as the "French word for the important operation in the production of fine wines of deciding which lots will be assembled to make up the final blend".

Obviously coupage is not something we are concerned with and while people may still stretch lots of wine by blending inferior products into superior ones and profit on an appellation or brand, this is mostly a bygone practice. During the 19th century it was not uncommon for Algerian wine to be blended into classified growth Bordeaux, and wine from southern France into well-regarded Burgundy Domaines. What we are concerned with, maybe even a little obsessed by, is the act and art of blending wines, grapes, plots, vineyards and styles to create the best, most complex, joyous and fun wines to drink.

Some wines are quintessential blends like Champagne and Sherry. These wines are mostly non-vintage products and are blended across variety, vineyard and vintage seeking a consistency of character. This is an awesome achievement in detail and balance. Vintage-dated wines are blended to provide the best balance, the most complexity and the greatest enjoyment a particular year, grape variety or varieties and place have to offer. In Bordeaux, five grape varieties are blended to make the red wines and three for the whites. Each barrel, tank, cask or vat containing different varieties from different portions of the vineyard or vineyards is tasted, judged and selected to be blended into the first label, the second wine or possibly de-classified and sold off.

In Burgundy the wine may be made from only Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, but a 'Bourgogne' is a blend of wines from different appellations. A 'village wine' like a Meursault is likely a blend of different vineyards, and a 'premier cru' or 'grand cru' may be a blend of different parcels within that vineyard, and is certainly a blend of several different barrels. In the New World each country has their own ideas about what can be blended with what and each even has their own laws (This idea of a symphonic blend is what our Vino Bianco and the great blends of Northeast Italy are all about.) about what percentage of a wine must be the grape variety that the wine is called. In the United States it is seventy-five percent.

Nicolas Belfrage in his book, "Barolo to Valpolicella" devotes an entire chapter to blends. In his discussion, he draws a beautiful analogy to music and states "In wine terms, the 'Solo' is the pure varietal, even if oak and/or fermentation or maturation aromas may somewhat complicate the issue. The 'Concerto' - where a single grape represents a dominant component of a blend - still falls near the definition of varietal. The 'Ensemble' where only grapes of a particular family say the Bordeaux family are used, would still, I would argue, be classifiable varietally under the heading of its lead player, since the primary aromas of all players are interrelated. Such a blending I would describe as a 'marrying in'."

We see examples of the 'Solo' in our Channing Daughters' Chardonnays, Pinot Grigio and Tocai Friulano, as these wines are 100% of the said variety. But these are still blends of different barrels, tanks and vineyard parcels. This is the Burgundian model. We see examples of the 'Concerto Ensemble' in our Merlots and Cabernets, where often there is 5% of this, 10% of that, or 2% of this, to provide structure, flesh, spice, or fruit, all in the aim of creating the best Merlot or Cabernet Franc. This is the Bordelaise model.

But Mr. Belfrage speaks of another type of complex blend when he writes, "what we are talking about here is the fourth type, the 'Symphony' the blend of grapes of mixed, generally unrelated aromatic or structural styles. This would be 'marrying out'." This is something truly exciting and something we at Channing Daughters, along with many people in Italy and Spain and California and Australia, indeed all over the world, are crazy about. This idea of a symphonic blend is what our Vino Bianco and the great blends of Northeast Italy are all about. Chardonnay blended with Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio and Tocai Friulano. A blend of clones. A blend of oak barrels, stainless steel barrels and tanks. A blend of vineyards. A blend of vineyard parcels. A blend of fermentation processes. These are all the different players, families and cultures that come together from disparate places to marry together to create a beautiful, complex wine.

There is another school of thought about blending to create symphonic wines showing an even greater obsession with a particular place or more precisely, "terroir". Jean-Michel Deiss, a wonderful, immensely talented and demanding wine grower in Alsace, France, is the leading proponent of the Vin de Terroir. These are wines from specific vineyard sites that are made with many different grape varieties that are all grown together, harvested together and fermented together to create a wine that is a unique expression of that given terroir. The wines are then named after the vineyard from which they come.

We are intrigued by this concept and by these wines, and have seized the opportunity to create a Vin de Terroir of our own. Our wine, named "Sylvanus" is a field blend of Muscat, Pinot Grigio and Pinot Bianco all harvested and vinified together to create a unique wine expressing the terroir of our vineyard Sylvanus. It is important to note that the blending here starts in the vineyard.

Complantation is the practice of planting many different grape varieties on one site, even within single rows. This is something we did in our vineyard, and is something that Deiss suggests strongly. In a book entitled, "The New France," he says, "How can I spell my name with one letter? How can my terroir express itself in one syllable? How can I make music with one note? To write a phrase, I need consonants, vowels, commas, full stops, verbs, subjects, complements. I need contradiction. Syntax is a way to organize contradictions so that you understand the message. Terroir is a space that takes contradictions and organizes them in a logical manner so that you can recognize them."

Even from our brief exploration we see that blending plays a huge role here at Channing Daughters and beyond. Beginning in the vineyard and carried through the cellar and into the bottle, blending decisions of all sorts are paramount. From the symphonic complexity of a blended wine like Vino Bianco, to the unique expression of time and place with a Vin de Terroir like our Sylvanus, to the familiarity of a 'solo' act like our different Chardonnays, to the warmth of a 'concerto' like our Merlots and Cabernets, one understands that these wines would not be possible without the act and the art of blending.

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