Recently I read an amusing Facebook post by someone who made his own “special blend” of wines at a large wine tasting on the East Coast. Basically, he saved half of every pour he received and then blended all the pours together to produce a “house blend.” I have to admit, I laughed when I read this.
But it got me thinking about the art of blending, and how winemakers everywhere attempt to find just the right blend to produce the best wine they can. When we started making wine at Covenant in 2003, we had only one vineyard source. We had nothing to blend aside from the free run and press wine. Yet we still made some great wine. But having the option to blend different vineyards, varietals and—to a certain degree—different appellations can also enhance quality. Today we source grapes from some 20 different vineyards in California and Israel. The blending possibilities have increased dramatically.
However, there are certain rules in California regarding how much wine can be blended in a given bottling. (And for the record, we don’t blend our Israeli wines with California wines.) Seventy-five percent of a varietally designated California wine, such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay, must be made from the varietal written on the label. So it’s possible the California Cabernet you enjoyed for dinner last night contains 25% Merlot, Syrah or even Chardonnay (which is unlikely). Eighty-five percent of the wine in a given bottle must come from grapes grown in the appellation written on the label. This means that a Napa Valley Cabernet can consist of 15% Sonoma Valley Cabernet and still be called “Napa Valley.” It’s not uncommon for wineries to cross-blend appellations in this way. Sometimes it’s done to reduce cost. (Sonoma Cabernet costs less than Napa Cabernet.) But sometimes it’s done to improve wine quality. A Cabernet grape grown in Napa Valley is not necessarily better than a neighboring Cabernet grape grown in Sonoma. And the sum of the parts may really exceed the quality of the parts themselves.
In 2014, I noticed that several new vineyards we were working with produced exceptional wine on a par with our best Napa Valley Cabernets. Alone, these wines in barrel tasted very good. But blended, they tasted even better.
We did blending trials to determine the best blend. And when we found it—60% Petit Verdot; 30% Malbec; 10% Syrah—we created a new wine called Neshama. It’s as good as anything we make—but different. And that’s what makes wine so interesting. Each year moving forward, Neshama will be a blend of our best non-Cabernet varietals. But the blend may change depending on the vintage.
Jeff Morgan (left) and Jonathan Hajdu (right) blending key components for Neshama Proprietary Red Wine 2016
How do we decide what makes the best blend? It’s a little bit science and a lot more art. At Covenant, I taste the components separately—with my winemaking associates, Jonathan Hajdu in California and Ari Erle in Israel. We try to imagine the desired result in advance. Typically, when you know what you’re looking for, you find it! And when you taste it, you recognize it.
Back to our amateur blender at the wine tasting described above: Yes, definitely a funny and fun experiment! However, I hope he doesn’t pursue this winemaking method professionally. What separates a good wine from a great wine is selective blending. Everything matters, and even a 5% addition to a blend can be critical. It’s not a game; and it’s not a joke. It’s serious. The winemaker’s art of blending is something all wine lovers should acknowledge and appreciate. Particularly when they taste something so outstanding that it sends them down to the cellar for another bottle!