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THURSDAY THORNS
03/12/2015
The Red Blend Phenomenon—Is It Real or Is It Memorex

By Charles Olken

Old friend Steve Heimoff wrote an intriguing essay the other day entitled “Trying To Comprehend The Red Blend Trend”. I often find Steve’s writing to be thought provoking, and certainly this topic was as well—as witnessed by the mostly intelligent conversation that took place in its stead. But part of the way that Steve and others have approached this topic makes me rather perturbed.

Let’s begin with something that Steve quoted from Lettie Teague of the Wall Street Journal. Teague weighs in on the red blend phenomenon by quoting a Nielsen, the statistics and research company, report that the red blend category is one of the fastest growing segments of the domestic wine market. And, while I have no reason or call to doubt that assertion, I do wonder why Ms. Teague, whose praises I sang so loudly just a couple of weeks ago, would make the comment that the red blend category began in 2001 with the release of The Prisoner, a blended red made from a mélange of grapes from good vineyards in the Napa Valley.

Now, aside from the 2003 real start date for the wine, my major bitch here is the generic red blends have existed in California forever. Indeed, the trend to varietal labeling did not being in earnest until after Prohibition was itself prohibited out of existence. But that is ancient history. What about recent history? How about Ridge Geyserville, originally labeled as Zinfandel but losing that monicker when the labeling laws raised the varietal content requirements from 51% to 75%.

In the rush for varietal purity, which makes sense for many varieties and certainly made more sense than allowing a Napa Valley Cabernet to contain 26% Napa Valley Cabernet, 25% Cabernet from anywhere else and whatever leftover or useful blending material might have been at hand, many wines were left without a reference category. And into that void, there came into existence the made-up but often accepted term Meritage for those wines with the appropriate Bordeaux grapes but less than 75% of anything.

It does not take a superior memory, just some longevity to remember that the Joseph Phelps winery intentionally created a blend called Insignia. In its early days, it was whatever was best in the winery among the Bordeaux grapes available and it tended to vary from year to year. It never had a varietal monicker. Not only is that red blend now made in 20,000 case lots but it retails for upwards of $200. It started back in the 1970s. But it was preceded by other significant wines, not the least of which was Beaulieu’s special Burgundy bottlings.

Now, all of this history is but foreplay to my real purpose today. I want to attack the red blend category for its potential failures. And, let me be clear, I do not mean every red blend. I reserve my opprobrium for those wines that leave us guessing at their contents but expect big prices nonetheless.

Here, in a nutshell, is my position, as stated so succinctly by the thoughtful, knowledgeable Tom Hill, one of our earliest subscribers and one of the finest wine minds around. Mr. Hill opines, “I’m not much tempted to try unknown blends unless I have some idea of what’s in them. Just so I can put them into some sort of context. And then I try to see if the predominate grape speaks the loudest. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes you can pick out two or so, sometimes it’s just a muddled mess. ‘ - See more at: http://www.steveheimoff.com/index.php/2015/03/10/trying-to-comprehend-the-red-blend-trend/#comments

You will also find my pithy comments over on Steve Heimoff, but I wasted a lot of verbiage for a short message. The only thing I would add to that of Mr. Hill is that CGCW tastes red blends only when we have a handle on what they are so that we can achieve the context that Mr. Hill wants and desires. He is correct.

I have nothing against red blends. They have all kinds of good purposes, whether to make non-varietal Bordeaux-style wines or to allow the old field blends (see Geyserville) to exist as unique entities or just to allow wineries to create something tasty and hopefully not too expensive. And, in true confessions, I will admit that the first blind tasting I ever staged was between a wine that my college roommates and I like called Gallo Burgundy and a wine that the local wine merchant recommended called Gallo Hearty Burgundy. The Hearty Burgundy won and we were on our ways to becoming semi-knowledgeable wine drinkers who had upped the ante to Beaujolais by the time we graduated.

Red blends may be a fast-growing category, but it is not a new category. I trace my wine roots back to Hearty Burgundy and to Guild Tavola red and that was way back before 2001 or 2003.


 

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Comments

Awwwww...
by TomHill
Posted on:3/12/2015 5:16:11 PM

Awwwww, Charlie......you're making me blush!!  :-)

But you're right...Lettie's sense of history in Calif is certainly lacking. Certainly compared with some of us graybeards.

 

And you're right about the BV Special Burgundy...those were really special. Never got any connection to real Burgundy...but it was just a real lip-smacking good wine...and actually aged pretty well. I recall it was mostly Charbono.

 

Tom

 

Joining the grey beard chorus
by Christian Miller
Posted on:3/13/2015 10:20:14 PM

...it's also worth noting that back in the bad old days of allowing any wine with over 50% of a variety to call itself by the varietal name, some of the best reserve varietal bottles were pretty much blends by the current definition. Think of August Sebastiani's terrific reserve Barberas with generous helpings of Zin, Mou and Petite Sirah.

Interestingly, consumers typically have a more expanded notion of "red blends" than does the trade, throwing everything from Rhone blends to Tuscan IGTs to Menage a Trois in the category. with some people jumping between them happily.

Bigger is Better
by Eric Teasley csw
Posted on:3/16/2015 2:50:20 PM

In the on-premise world; red blends seem to be sold exclusively to under-40 consumers who might consider themselves "wine adventurers". The interesting thing we've seen is that these consumers almost never order the same bottling twice. It's from one "thrill" to the next with no hesitation . . . & with lots of pleasure, not contemplation.

Better is Better
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:3/16/2015 3:31:08 PM

It has been the case for as long as I have been writing--going back to the mid-70s--that bigger is better has been one of the jumping off points for wine lovers whose desires are for something ("thrill" is an interesting and instructive way to describe the phenomenon) more in a wine experience.

Understandings of nunace, terroir, the role of acidity in uses with food all develop over time, and certainly the search for "bigger" is not the only pathway. But it is also one that we have seen over and over again. And it is not to be sneered at regardless of the fact that it is just a way station along the road to wine appreciation for many people. Anything that moves the wine appreciation needle is worthy of respect because it does work for many people.

Thanks, Eric, for the comment--and for the reminder.

Tasting
by Adam Lee
Posted on:3/16/2015 6:38:38 PM

So, Charlie (and Tom),

Would you taste the 2012 Chateau de Beaucastel (at only 30% Grenache) alongside the 2012 Chateau Rayas (at 100% Grenache)?  I mean, they are both CdPs.....

Adam Lee

Siduri Wines

Context
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:3/17/2015 6:09:29 PM

Adam--

Fair question. 

In its simplest terms, Beaucastel and Rayas get tasted with all other CdPs, just as Figeac gets tasted with St. Emilions.

There really is no other context for the two you mention, and thus it is incumbent on the taster, especially for a critic whose words are going into print, to understand the full range of possibilities of that context. 

We run into the same question when tasting Cabernet-based wines. The range of blends that have Cabernet as their highest percentage is all over the map. One cannot even find a context that pits exact peers against exact peers in that case. Yet, they have to be tasted and understood. 

Your simple question really isn't all that simple. The fullest answer would require discussions of experience, tasting acumen, knowledge and open-mindedness that does not prescribe a fixed answer in advance. 

Does this mean that all red blends generally can be tasted in one fell swoop regardless of cepage? I would argue that it does not and should not at the level of CGCW generally, which is fine-wine oriented.

But, on a pure hedonistic basis, anything can be compared to anything including apples and oranges--although I have yet to try that latter mashup.

Comparing Red Blends
by Adam Lee
Posted on:3/17/2015 6:26:12 PM

Charlie,

The reason you (and I, quite frankly) would compare Rayas and Beaucastel is because, over many many years, we've come to know CdP as wines from a region, no matter what the blend.  100% Grenache or 30% Grenache, with Carginane or without, we've come to look for certain things from red blends that are known as Chateaunuef-du-Pape.

Tastings, such as the ones CGCW hold (or Spectator or many others) are based on grape type not region.  You taste Grenache separate from Syrah based on what the primary grape type is in the blend.  

But perhaps what we are seeing now, with red blends in California, is the beginning of this Chateauneufing of the wines.  Maybe, in the future, you will find yourself tasting the red blends of Paso Robles together as one category.  Maybe the same will hold true of Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma Valley, and perhaps many other regions.  Maybe instead of following Tom Hill's logic of seeing if the predominant grape speaks the loudest, we will move to a point where the place (be it CdP or Santa Ynez) speaks louder than the grape involved.

Adam Lee

Siduri Wines

Geography vs. Grape
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:3/17/2015 6:53:37 PM

Adam--

As you have said, "Maybe".

I am not sure I am ready for blends that have no limits and no context to become a serious category. Syrah and Grenache in Paso, especially upper westside Paso bears very little resemblance to or looks like a basis for evaluation with eastside Cab-Merlot. 

And therein lies the rub. Blends from the southern Rhone have both place and grape limitations. California place blends have zero limitations, and thus Tom Hill's comments about context are instructive. 

Neither Tom nor I come with any predisposition against the possibilities of blend quality. And the time may come when there will be some commonality among blends from a place thus creating context. 

I was just sitting here musing about blends that could exist. I would not be opposed to seeing a Barbera-Merlot blend from the right settings in the Sierra Foothills or a Charbono-Carignane-Merlot-Syrah blend from Mt. Veeder. I have no idea if they would work, and I seriously doubt that they would rise to the levels of grandeur that the current wines from those areas can achieve, but we can do things like that in CA. Try doing that in Burgundy.

Not So Fast
by Adam Lee
Posted on:3/17/2015 7:42:35 PM

Your point about zero limitations is a good one, until i look at the examples you give and I realize that you picked Barbera and the Sierra Foothills because it exists there in greater quantities (aside from the Central Valley) than in the rest of California's counties put together.  And you mentioned Charbono and Mt. Veeder because there is more Charbono in Napa (mainly I believe on Mt. Veeder) than there is in the rest of California's counties put together.

Certainly we have no restrictions, but in some real way we are moving towards certain grapes in certain areas and once you realize that, the "maybe" seem more like "possibly."

Adam Lee

Siduri Wines

Anything Is Possible
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:3/17/2015 8:04:47 PM

As we no doubt agree, California, and other New World places for that matter, are more open to possibilities than established locations with their century-plus old rules.

But I will be surprised if we see a spate of Charbono-based blends. And for that matter, it is the less established places in CA that have more potential simply for blends because they are not invested heavily in grapes that have shown very well and have become economically dominant. 

There are a couple of comments earlier in this thread that suggest, to me at least, that the red blend trend as we currently are experiencing it, is less about nuance and longevity and more about hedonistic pleasure in the here and now.

If that is true, it is fine with me. The more that folks find pleasure in new vinous experience, the more likely it is that some of them will eventually discover your wines and their ilk, Adam.

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