The art of blending different cultivars into a wine that is balanced, cohesive and therefore delicious and utterly drinkable is an age-old tradition, and many well-known blends have been made for centuries in their area of origin, and are now replicated all over the world.
While modern blends are carefully considered masterpieces, the practice of planting and blending multiple varieties was born of necessity. The caprice of Mother Nature – often unpredictable even in modern times – led our wine growing ancestors to plant different cultivars as a form of insurance; an early ripening cultivar may be successfully harvested and vinified while the later ripening grapes could be threatened by rains. Conversely an early ripening cultivar could succumb to wind or frost – damaged buds and flowers resulting in a very low yield or poor quality fruit, a fate which will hopefully be escaped by the later ripening cultivars in our ancestors’ vineyards!
The modern winemaker has a far better understanding of the chemistry behind the structure of his product: the balance between acidity, sugar, tannins and alcohol and the various other attributes that contribute to the organoleptic properties of a wine. Blending may therefore be used to adjust the pH or alcohol of the final product – however the art of blending entails a far broader perspective. Blending may refer to not only the blending of different cultivars as most people would expect.
“At Creation for example,” says cellarmaster and winemaker Jean-Claude (JC) Martin, “I will select what I feel to be the very best barrels of Pinot Noir to be blended into the top cuvée in a given vintage, taking not only the individual character of each barrel into consideration but also how these characteristics will work together once blended.”
He may choose to introduce one or two older barrels (2nd or 3rd fill barrels) which have less pronounced oak and more fruit, or he may choose to use 100% 1st fill barrels as in our flagship Art of Creation Pinot Noir and Art of Creation Chardonnay. Barrel blending is also based on the toast levels of the barrels and will take into consideration the tonnelier (or cooper) who produced them and forest from which the wood was sourced – something which can have a significant impact on the flavour profile and tannin structure of the wine.
When blending a single cultivar there is also the option to blend with clones. Clones are genetic mutations within a cultivar that produce the same grape but with slightly different characteristics. Planting different clones and blending them can add complexity to a single cultivar wine, with each clone potentially benefiting from a different aspect of terroir that it is particularly suited to due to its adaptations.
The same cultivar from different vineyards on the same estate can be blended together, taking into account the differences in aspect, exposure and harvest ripeness; and sometimes wines from totally different regions are blended together, although this precludes the wine with Estate status. Sometimes wines from different vintages are blended together. The most common example of a wine that is produced by blending different vintages is non-vintage (NV) Champagne, which makes up most of the bubbly produced in France each year. Only Champagne vintages of exceptional quality are “declared”, or released unblended, usually as a special cuvée and at a higher price. This practice is common to quality sparkling wine production around the world, but it is far rarer to find non-vintage still wine.
Bordeaux and Rhône-style Blends at Creation
At Creation we create three blends, each with its roots in the classic wine producing region. Two of these blends originated in Bordeaux, perhaps the most famous wine producing area in the world. With over 120 000 hectares under vine across the Gironde Department, the area centred around the city of Bordeaux is the largest producer of wine in France. The finest wines from this region are world famous for their elegance and ability to age gracefully for decades – and also their price. While the typical red Bordeaux-style blend is recognised by consumers and emulated by producers in most places where wine is grown around the world, Bordeaux is also home to a lesser known yet equally notable white blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon.
Creation Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon
The most famous examples of white Bordeaux blends are the sweet wines of Sauternes, which are dominated by Semillon, with Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle used to a lesser extent. The dry white wines of Bordeaux are also allowed to contain Sauvignon Gris, Ugni Blanc, Colombard, Merlot Blanc, Ondenc and Mauzac. However these cultivars represent a minute proportion of the total planting, and modern white Bordeaux tends to exclude most of them. The style is fresh and very dry, with each of the components fulfilling a function within the blend: the Sauvignon Blanc has naturally high acidity and has a flavour profile of tropical fruit, citrus, minerality and grass. The Sauvignon Blanc provides the wine with its exuberant, fresh character, while the Semillon is essential to the structure and mouth-feel of the wine. Semillon has lower acidity, higher sugar and a unique lanolin character which provides excellent weight on the palate. Most examples of dry white Bordeaux are un-oaked, however the Semillon in premium examples responds well to oak, and can extend the bottle maturation potential considerably, supporting the wine once the initial freshness of the Sauvignon Blanc starts to fade, and developing attractive secondary and tertiary flavours for up to a decade after vintage.
At 60% Sauvignon Blanc and 40% Semillon, the Creation white Bordeaux-style blend evokes memories of the Atlantic sea breeze, with a saline finish and subtle oak on the Semillon component rounding out the tropical fruit and freshness of the Sauvignon Blanc to provide depth and complexity. The savoury nature of the wine makes it ideal for pairing with food, especially where the meal mirrors the maritime personality of this terroir-expressive wine. Enjoy it with oysters, shellfish or any seafood, freshly caught and prepared.
Creation Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot
As mentioned above, the emergence of blended wines is no accident – in the past, before the modern advancements made in agriculture, planting different grape varieties with different strengths and weaknesses was a way to insure against disease or inclement weather. The modern appellation laws in Bordeaux permit only 6 red grape cultivars to be grown there, and a blend of any two or more of these cultivars is considered to be a Bordeaux blend. The permitted varieties each have specific desirable qualities, and are used in different proportions by different chateaux. The grapes used are:
Comprising nearly two thirds of the plantings in Bordeaux, Merlot is most often used as the base of blends. Coming from the Right Bank such as the famous Chateau Petrus, Merlot brings a softness and richness to blends, requiring other varieties to impart fruit, colour and tannin. It ripens in areas where Cabernet Sauvignon struggles.
This cultivar represents one quarter of plantings in Bordeaux and is most often the star of the Left Bank’s famous First Growths, for example Chateau Margaux. Cabernet Sauvignon is usually planted in areas with high stone/gravel content as it is at the northern limit of where it can ripen successfully in Bordeaux. The tannic nature of Cabernet Sauvignon means wines which can age for decades, and often produces graphite/pencil shaving flavour profiles.
Only planted in the hottest areas, Petit Verdot never plays more than a minor role in a blend. However its impact can be disproportionate to its volume as it produces extremely dark, highly tannic wines with exotic spicy notes.
Mostly planted in Saint-Émilion and to a lesser extent in the Médoc and Graves, successfully ripened Cabernet Franc can contribute fragrant notes. It prefers well-drained warm soils much like Cabernet Sauvignon, although it does not usually produce wines with as much finesse.
Once the most planted grape in Bordeaux, it now makes up a tiny fraction of plantings in the region. It adds colour and fruit, however its sensitivity to vine ailments led to a decline in popularity.
This grape is now rarely used in Bordeaux – with only a handful of producers still retaining plantings – and is often left out when listing Bordeaux cultivars.
The Creation Bordeaux-style blend is 55% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Petit Verdot. The balance created by the blending of these three cultivars makes for a very precisely structured wine that will benefit greatly from ageing. When assessing the wine, the interaction of the different blending components with their different palate weights and the transfer of flavour across the palate are smooth and composed. Merlot provides up-front mouth-feel and fruit, Cabernet Sauvignon occupies the back of the palate with a long, intense finish, while the fairly high percentage of Petit Verdot supports the mid-palate structure of the wine.
The Southern Rhône has been an important wine producing area in France since the 13th Century when the Pope took up residence in Avignon. The principal red grapes used in the blends are Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Carignan and Cinsault, although there are 13 different red varieties allowed in the most famous of the Southern Rhône blends: Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
Creation Syrah Grenache
Widely planted across the globe, Grenache is steadily gaining popularity in South Africa due not only to its predilection for warmer soils but also its incredible versatility. Used on its own to produce a lighter, fruitier style of red wine, it is most often used in red blends or as a base for rosé wines. At Creation the fruitier, floral notes of the Grenache serve as the perfect foil for the denser structure and spicy flavours present in the Syrah. We like to describe our Rhône-style blend as a ‘sly chameleon’ thanks to its ability to change personality depending on the occasion – especially useful when pairing wine with food.
Genetically linked to two obscure grapes from the South of France (Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche) Syrah is native to the Rhône, and the cool climate style of Syrah produced on our 40 hectares perched high up on the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge exhibits a restrained and elegant style with soft, expressive spices and an abundance of plum fruit. At 80% of the blend, this forms the base of the wine, lending it tannic structure and good colour, while retaining an inherent freshness due to its excellent natural acidity – another advantage of the more temperate climate on the Ridge.
Grenache on the other hand is slightly lower in tannin, colour and acidity; however it possesses a delicate floral personality that creates fantastic depth of flavour and interesting nuances when blended with the heavier Syrah. It is interesting to note that in blending the two cultivars, the result is greater than the sum of its parts: the combination of Syrah and Grenache enhances the savoury notes of the wine, coaxing out the much sought-after characteristic of umami in the form of ripe olive and tapenade flavours. In blending the wine Cellarmaster JC Martin combines years of experience and instinct to create the most balanced possible product – a process very much akin to that of a chef creating the perfect recipe.
Here is our previous Art of Winemaking story on Barrel Maturation.