Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Aren't Blends Beautiful?

Orchestras. Mutts. Fusion food--even weird fusion food. Historical- mystery- suspense- thrillers with a horror twist. Blended wine. I love them all. I see nothing wrong with mixing things up and experimenting with new combinations of sounds, tastes, and images. (Picture of the Philadelphia Orchestra from the Official Philadelphia Visitor's Site)

Which is why I find it so weird that 85% of any grape variety is enough to warrant slapping "sauvignon blanc" or "cabernet sauvignon" on a label. Do people think this makes me MORE likely to buy the wine? It turns out it makes me LESS interested. Am I alone in loving blended wines like Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier, Grenache with Shiraz and Mourvedre, or Roussanne and Marsanne?

Is this labeling practice a weird hangover from when purchasers were scared--rightfully so--of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink blends? Do we still think that just because a wine includes a single variety of grape or the juice comes from only one vineyard, it's a better wine? Sometimes, this is true. But certainly not always, as anyone who drinks Rhone blends, Bordeaux blends, or some of the excellent blends coming out of California or Australia knows all too well.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately because of a recent dispute on CellarTracker! that had to do with labeling a wine as the varietal "Fume Blanc." I thought the varietal was sauvignon blanc, and the style off wine was fume blanc. Turns out our friends at the ATF recognize fume blanc as a synonym for sauvignon blanc. Weird, but hard to argue with even though I passionately believe that this just confuses consumers and is wrong, wrong, wrong. Then I argued that the wine had 88% sauvignon blanc and 12% viognier and should be labeled a white blend. Foiled again, since as long as there is 85% or more of a single varietal it counts as a single varietal wine.

This goes against everything I believe about promoting the widest possible number of grape varieties, and telling people exactly what is in the wine they are drinking. How will people learn about viognier if they don't even know that they're drinking it?

I don't need calorie counts or carbohydrates on my wine labels. I just want to know what grapes went into it!


Anonymous said...

This makes me think of Jeff's post on Good Grape, about declining wine drinking in France. There, it is not the norm to put varietals on the wine labels, short of the VdP d'Oc wines that are not status symbols to drink. Might people drink more wine when they know what they're drinking? I think so...the more confusing wine is, the more off-putting.

If you don't know that Petrus is from the right bank, and that right bank wines are primarily Merlot, than you don't know what's in Petrus. Maybe Petrus is a bad example, because most of us will never have the chance to drink it for reasons other than whether we know what varietal its made of; but Bordeaux in general is confusing. At the wine shop, unless somebody is helping me out, and unless I know a lot about AOCs and particular estates, I often decline to buy the Bordeaux because I don't know exactly what I'm going to get.

However, at least California wines, for the most part, tell you what's in them. The 85% varietal rule is imperfect, because it encourages the silly notion that a single varietal wine is somehow superior to blends. And most blends aren't of the "everything but the kitchen sink" variety, but are more nuanced -- the "everything but" wines like the Prisoner or the Pleiades, whose label can only say "red wine", are highly thought out by their makers are are hardly haphazard efforts.

In any case, I'm digressing. But I guess I'm coming away in favor of the US system of varietal labeling, even if it's imperfect; some rules need to apply, and the 85% rule is arbitrary indeed.

But ultimately it's up to the wineries themselves to market their wines how they choose to. If they feel they can sell more wine by saying it's Cabernet Sauvignon, even if its made more smooth, drinkable and approachable by the addition of 10% Merlot, than I suppose that's there choice.

As for Fumé Blanc, this was created by Mondavi, from what I gather, in order to market a style of Sauvignon Blanc made to replicate Pouilly Fumé in France. Again, the choice of a businessman and winemaker who wanted to figure out the best way to sell his goods.

If you asked 100 people in the US what's in Pouilly Fumé I bet a large percentage wouldn't know. If you asked them what's in Fumé Blanc? I bet many would come up with a guess that approximates a correct answer. Maybe marketing, even with some missteps and misguided decisions, is doing a decent job in the US after all on behalf of wine. From what Jeff says, at the very least they're doing better than those who avoid varietal labeling altogether.

Anonymous said...

oh lord, I typed "there" instead of "their". Grammar gods, please forgive me for that (and many other) gross error.

Anonymous said...

Do you think it makes people nervous, when they see blends? I like a good Semillon/Chard or Viognier/Marsanne, but probably because I know what I’m getting with just one varietal, and like to try new things. To be precise, I’m confident enough in my wine knowledge to enjoy trying new things.

I got into an interesting discussion over at Wine Ministry about whether Americans don’t buy blends because of a lack of trust of the winemaker. They’re all worried that they don’t know what they’re doing, buying wine, and finally find one varietal they like, so they trust it. They don’t trust a blend; who knows if blending the Chardonnay makes it less tasty to them? Why risk it? Why not buy what they’ve always bought?

Anonymous said...

A couple things... if a wine has an AVA appellation, it's 85% - but if it is a county or state appellation, the percentage drops to 75%.

That said, I think more consumers are starting to be more interested in blends - or at least that is what we are hearing from our visitors.

A blend gives the winemaker more tools to make the best wine from each vintage by adjusting the compoents accordingly - just like no two soups need exactly the same amount of salt. There is a reason the recipe says 'season to taste'!

A blend also gives a winemaker the chance to come up with fun names for the wine...

Unknown said...

I remember discussing wine with a neighbor (who knows next to nothing about wine), who told me that wine blends were the best value because they were always less expensive than "pure" varietals. I hate to say this but I laughed hysterically. Then I explained Bordeaux to him.

Anyway, I love blends and like you, I always want to know what grapes are in the wine I drink.

Anonymous said...

I do enjoy a blend when I can see whats in it. But then again, one of my early favorites (though not as much lately) was "Conundrum" from Caymus. Its was interesting trying to figure out what was in there and to be honest, I still don't know.

Anyway, I will say this, the varietal on the bottle makes it far easier to get people into wines. Its easy to learn - Chardonnay from central coast will be lighter, crisper, while Chard from Napa/Sonoma (or other warm region) bigger, fruities - and therefore creates, for the early drinker, a sense of accomplishment when they try a wine in a restaurant that isn't a "brand" they know but a varietal from a region they know and it turns out the way they expected. Its difficult (and intimidating) when the early wine drinker doesn't know anything about a wine and that, in turn, causes that wine drinker to not do the best thing in the world - venture out of their comfort zone. It would make early drinkers "stick with what they know and nothing else...Kendall-Jackson all the way"...(Oh, what that wine drinker is missing out on is a real shame!!!). On that point I disagree with Jill, the single varietal label doesn't falsely create a notion of superiority but it creates the ability for a beginner to learn, get comfortable, and then venture out further.

I think an appreciation for blends comes after you've been drinking wines for a while. You start to understand wine, terroir, weather conditions, wine makers that you meet, etc etc. All encounters and experiences in the wine life that shape your wine character. Eventually you start to notice blends that gain a little extra crisp-ness from Sauv Blanc, or the fruit flavors that a Grenache can bring into a blend. That is another level of wine appreciation. That is the level where you'll seek out others that can make recommendations that you rely on and regularly read their blogs ;)...

Anyway, my $.02. Single varietals, however small 75-85% or whatever, are the "free sample" of crack cocaine that get you hooked on a life-long habit that can easily bankrupt you if you're not careful.


David McDuff said...

Wow, Dr. Debs, I'm not sure I've seen such a string of lengthy comments outside of "The Pour." I'm afraid I'm about to make it longer.

There seems to be a bit of confusion where grape variety percentage is concerned. Assuming that CA is the model state we're discussing, 75% is the threshold at which any wine, regardless of appellation, can be named after a single variety. This shouldn't be confused with the requirement that in any wine with an appellation (AVA) more specific than the statewide level, a minimum of 85% of the grapes has to have been grown within the AVA.

So, your "Cabernet Sauvignon" has to be at least 75% Cabernet Sauvignon; the other 24+% can be anything. Yes, anything. In the AVA scenario, for a bottle to be labeled as "Napa Valley," at least 85% of the fruit must have been grown somewhere in Napa; the other 14+% can come from anywhere in California. If it's labeled as "Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon," it's still only necessary for the wine to be 75% Cab, but at least 85% of the overall juice must have its origins in Napa.

As for the question of superiority in the battle between varietal and blended wines, the answer is really just a blind goose chase mired in culturally entrenched experiences. Wine producing countries in the New World have historically labeled their wines by variety. It's what the citizens of those countries grow up with and know. It's their comfort zone. Conversely, most Europeans grow up in a wine culture that has historically named its wines after their place of origin. Wine drinking in the Old World is often far more provincial than in the New, but there is, or at least once was, also often a much deeper connection between person and wine within that smaller sphere of experience.

In response to Jill's question, I don't think varietal labeling will change the current declining trends in French wine consumption. I think it's a reflection of changing French culture, of an internationalization, driven largely by media, digital detachment and the speeding up of life, that is separating the recent generations of French citizens from large parts of their own cultural heritage, wine and food in particular. It's not that they understand "Chardonnay" but don't understand "Bourgogne Blanc," it's that they're losing touch with what wine means. Period. Teaching them "our way" won't open their eyes, it will only further narrow the meaningfulness of their wine experience.

Anonymous said...

David is right - sometimes I need a scorecard to keep track of all this crap!

Dr. Debs said...

Thanks for these great comments, which I am still thinking about. David, you're a champ to set us straight about the exact cut-off point. I should say I got the 85% stat at CellarTracker! in the midst of my "fume blanc is not a varietal" rant in the forums.

I think 75% is shockingly low to label a wine "cabernet sauvignon," in part because if you stick 25% merlot in there it's not going to taste like a 100% cabernet wine and then you will go around thinking "well, I liked that first cab, but not the second one" without realizing one reason WHY is that you may prefer your cabs blended with merlot. Ditto on the whites front. People now seem to put viognier in nearly everything, and when I'm not expecting it in my sauvignon blanc because it's presence isn't indicated on the label, it makes me angry. Then I head for the internet, check the tech sheets, and voila. 80% sauvignon blanc, 15% viognier, and 5% semillon. Well, that isn't going to taste like 100% sauvignon blanc, is it? And it has nothing to do with where the wine comes from geographically, so it totally undermines the acquisition of wine knowledge of the type that Joel describes.

Jeez. This is a long set of responses. Mine included!