What Is A Blended Red Wine?

Erin O'Reilly - Certified Specialist of Wine

4/11/2021
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Wine drinkers tend to gravitate towards what they know, and the wine industry has done a great job of marketing varietal wines. You know that you like Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, or Sauvignon Blanc. So why would wineries ever choose to make a blended wine and leave you guessing about what’s in the bottle?

Like so many things with wine, there’s a story behind the label worth exploring.

Friends often ask me three questions about wines labeled as blends:

  1. Are these wines worth it?

  2. Why would a red blend be more expensive than a varietally labeled wine on the wine list?

  3. Why does it just say ‘blend’ on the label, if it was so good?


Old clay vessels for holding wine

A Little Background on Blended Wines

Throughout history, the majority of wines have been blended. Vineyards had an assortment of different varieties growing in a given field, hence the name ‘field blend’. Farmers were less concerned about the different cultivars than they were about making sure that what was in the field got turned into wine, thus ensuring that they had something safe to drink next year.

The entire field was harvested at the same time regardless of whether or not the crop was uniformly ripe. Likewise, these grapes were crushed and vinified (made into wine) together in one big fermentation vessel.

As our understanding of winegrowing and winemaking improved, growers slowly shifted to mono-varieties in the fields and vinifying the different grapes separately in the winery.

This change allowed winemakers to select wines that expressed certain characteristics and blend them together to create a richer, more refined wine. The sum being greater than the parts.


Hand swirling a glass of red wine

What are famous wine blends?

Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre, or "GSM", originates from the Rhône region in France. Grenache brings the alcohol and red fruit; Syrah adds spice, color, and tannin; and Mourvèdre, a rustic red, contributes still more color and tannin to round out the wine’s body.

Meritage wines, a portmanteau of ‘merit’ and ‘heritage’, are a Californian creation, and require a blend of at least two different Bordeaux varieties (e.g., Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Carménère, etc.), with no one variety comprising greater than 90% of the blend.

Then we have Champagne. A classic example of a white blend, most Champagnes and Champagne-style sparkling wines are a combination of three grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Munier. Some Champagnes are produced as single varietals, but the majority are blends.


Don’t forget wine labeling laws.


Local labeling laws also play a big role in determining whether or not a wine gets labeled as a generic blend. A famed Italian example, Sassicaia, earned it the term ‘Super Tuscan’ in the 1970s. Regulatory bodies in Tuscany mandate the different grapes, percentages, and winemaking techniques made under their regional appellation schemes. Instead of using Sangiovese (think Chianti Classico), Sassicaia embraced a Bordeaux style. The resulting wine - an international sensation - had to be labeled Vino da Tavola, or generic table wine, causing an uproar.


Winemaker's hand using a wine syphon to get red wine out of a wine barrel

How to Blend Wine

Blending is one of the few tools winemakers have to craft wines of supreme elegance. The lengthy process involves deliberate measurement of different volumes of wines along with a tasting panel in a wine blending lab. Winemakers dial in exact proportions over a series of days to determine the most complimentary style in the final wine. This involves making sure that the different components harmonize.

An apt analogy is a musical chord. You can tell when all of the notes go together, and when one of them is off. Precision is key. A 50% addition of Wine 1, may result in a very different final wine than a 53% addition of Wine 1. And so the process continues.


Back to wine labeling laws.


The Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) regulates wine labeling laws in the U.S. (imports also have to comply with the same rules). TTB guidelines dictate that any varietally labeled wine must have a minimum of 75% of that particular varietal on the label.

You can see where this is going.

A wine that says ‘Cabernet Sauvignon’ or ‘Sauvignon Blanc’ on the label, may actually be 25% of a different variety, or multiple varieties, and you’ll never know.

Or take that smooth artisanal red wine you so enjoy labeled as a Red Blend. It may be 74% Cabernet Sauvignon and 26% Merlot, and therefore be relegated to blend status by law.


Red wine bottles on a wine rack

Wine Blends and the ‘House Style’

Wineries with large production volumes often have a signature blend. These wines express a consistent style and profile year-over-year. Stroll through any wine aisle at a grocery store or similar distributor and take a look at the major labels. Most likely they have a wine that doesn’t list exactly what’s in the bottle. These blends have extensive market reach. Consumers know what to expect - no surprises - and reward the producers with a loyal fan-base.


What does this mean for the wine lover?


To answer the three questions:

  1. Are these wines worth it?
    Yes - Easy answer. Next.

  2. Why is a red blend more expensive than a varietally labeled wine on the wine list?
    Know that if a producer released a wine as a blend, there’s a reason for it. The winemaker went through a systematic process to balance out the wine in your glass, harmonizing all of the elements. This takes serious time and skill.

  3. Why does it just say ‘blend’ on the label, if it was so good?
    It could be a house style or labeling restrictions. Regardless, blends are delicious - from a soft red blend, to a powerful red worthy of your BBQ brisket, and everything in between.


If you find a blended wine in California, or from any other region, take a chance. You’re likely to discover a pleasant surprise in your glass!

Click here to see a list of current Red Blend wines from our Wine Store.


Cheers!

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Erin O'Reilly Author Bio Image Author Bio: Erin O’Reilly is a Certified Specialist of Wine with the Society of Wine Educators and a long-time lover of all things fermented grape. She pens her work from Monterey wine country where she raises a glass to the growers and producers crafting wines that transcend time.