Blends Hold Their Own

While the popularity of Napa Valley grapes such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon will never wane, California’s beloved wine region has also become quite well known for its blends, primarily crafted from the area’s star red grape. According to Nielsen, red table wine blends saw a growth of 11% in 2014, in contrast to whites at just 4.2%. Red blends account for about a sixth of all red wine sold in the U.S., which translates to the fact one in six bottles of red wine sold in the U.S. is a blend.

Consider the powerhouse Opus One, whose 2011 vintage unites Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec; the Cab-heavy 2011 Dominus, with just a touch of Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc; or Quintessa, which puts some—or all—of its estate-grown grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Carmenere) in the spotlight year after year with its annual blend.

Yet not all successful blends need be of the upscale variety. Santa Rita’s new Bougainville, from Chile’s Maipo Valley, appeals—for $40—with its blend of 85% Petite Sirah and 15% Syrah. And let’s not forget mainstream brands like California-made Apothic, the easy-drinking jammy wine with Zinfandel, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, and even its refreshing sibling, Apothic White (with Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Riesling). The equally playfully named Cupcake Wines, also from California, made a splash in recent years. Along with varietals like Malbec and Pinot Noir, its Red Velvet – a blend of Zinfandel, Merlot and Petite Sirah – is just as sought after.

It has long been entrenched in the minds of wine buyers that the very thought of purchasing a wine blend over a single varietal is negative. Naturally, rampant buzzwords like Burgundy, a region that connotes elegance and lavish prices, disguised the fact that many of these esteemed wines were, in fact, blends—very good ones at that.

“The classic blended wine is red Bordeaux. Many people do not even realize that Bordeaux is almost always a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and other less-known grapes,” says Donald Killinger of Brooklyn, NY-based Acme Wines & Spirits and Waterfront Wines & Spirits. “A runner-up would be Côtes du Rhône. There are over twenty grapes allowed by the rules of the AOC, with the predominant red grapes being Grenache and Syrah.”

Blends are hardly stigmatized these days; instead, they are relished. Yet Killinger can’t place his finger on the exact reason for their luster. “Many customers don’t even know the wines they enjoy actually are blended. However, some customers do specifically say that they like blends, but typically don’t know what blends they are looking for,” he says.

Knowing this piece of open-minded consumer intelligence is a boon to retailers who can tap into this growing interest, giving up-and-coming wine regions the spotlight. New York State wines have made tremendous strides over the last several years; along with an increase in quality, customer interest has been piqued.

One such winery that has championed Long Island wines is Bridgehampton-based Channing Daughters. Its super-blends, like the Mosaico (Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat, Gewürtzraminer, Tocai), change every year. Lieb Cellars, close by in Mattituck, debuted two new blends under its Bridge Lane brand in 2014: the Bridge Lane White Blend (29% Chardonnay, 26% Pinot Blanc, 18% Riesling, 14% Viognier, 9% Sauvignon Blanc, 4% Gewürztraminer) and the Bridge Lane Red Blend (46% Merlot, 37% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Petit Verdot, 5% Malbec). Likewise, up in the Riesling-dominant Finger Lakes, Anthony Road Wine Company in Penn Yan has had great success with its more unconventional Cabernet Franc-Lemberger blend.

“Blends are becoming increasingly popular among New York wineries, especially with certain grape varieties like Cabernet Franc and Lemberger, and Riesling and Gewürztraminer,” notes Jim Tresize, president of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation. “These varieties, as well as others, can make some stunning wines by themselves. But sometimes blending can give you a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts – it’s taste synergy.”

Blends are also a choice introduction to more serious single varietals. Franciscan Estate Winery, in St. Helena, for example, makes Equilibrium (72% Sauvignon Blanc, 17% Chardonnay, 11% Muscat), a far more approachable blend than the robust wines often associated with the region. Clean, crisp and ideal with food, it paves the way for bolder Chardonnays. The same could be said of Franciscan Estate’s hearty meritage blend, the Magnificat (79% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot, 6% Petit Verdot and 3% Malbec), which serves as a warm-up to those pervasive, powerful all-Cabs.

Michael Warner, co-founder and managing director of Washington, DC-based wine boutique DCanter, notes that his customers seek out blends for pragmatic reasons: They are sophisticated buyers who crave “a complete wine that provides balanced fruit, acidity and a lingering finish,” he says. “While many single varietals are strong in one or two of those areas, well-made blends consistently deliver in all three.” Not surprisingly, many of DCanter’s customers recognize blends as a great value.

DCanter’s clientele, who often choose blends over single-varietal wines, tends to lean toward traditional styles. “Red Rhône blends, like the classic Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre, sell exceptionally well, as does white Bordeaux,” he says. “White blends that incorporate a small amount of Viognier consistently outsell the single varietal, which is a bit surprising given the popularity of Viognier at nearby Virginia wineries.”

With the recent launch of Concierge by DCanter, a bespoke wine selection and delivery service that caters to each customer’s distinct taste, budget and lifestyle preferences, Warner believes blends will become even more intriguing to his patrons. “DCanter hopes to share a number of new wines that individuals may not have previously considered due to obscure or confusing labeling – a problem for many blended wines.”

This especially becomes a challenge when unknown grapes, such as Portugal’s Viosinho, Rabigato and Gouveio, comprise wines like Esporão’s new Assobio white. It’s also a recurring problem in Italy, where many a desirable wine is a blend. After all, look at the prowess of Chianti, with its mix of Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Malvasia Bianca. On the heels of Centine, the Sangiovese-Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot blend that is one of Banfi’s biggest sellers, the company will soon roll out Unparalleled, yet another mélange of Tuscan grapes.

At Honor Wines in Staten Island, NY, owner Lorie Honor notices that the blends of choice among most her customers are Côtes du Rhône. But after that, it’s Italian wines that get the most attention. “Morellino di Scansano, a Sangiovese-Cab from Maremma, and Il Cacciatore di Sogni, Rosso Conero Montepulciano, a Sangiovese-Merlot, are both under twenty dollars,” she says. “There’s an uptick in our customers drinking blends. Many of our wine-curious drinkers understand blends beyond Bordeaux and know they are not the machinations of a Franken-winemaker ‘covering’ for a meh wine, but actually a respected practice yielding delicious wines.”

Some of the other hit blends found on Honor’s shelves include Chateau Renard, from France’s burgeoning Jura region, “a crazy delicious and dreamy white that is Savagnin and Chardonnay,” she says. “From the states, California is representing well with the sort of super crazy and tiny production from Napa. Suhr Luchtel Cellars’ Mosaique is just that, a gorgeous blend of Merlot, Cab, Cab Franc and Malbec. For more everyday drinking—and under twenty dollars—we sell and love Betsy’s Backacher from Spann Vineyards, with huge fruit and good, grippy tannins.”

How to attract her customers to these offbeat blends without an aggressive marketing push? It’s simply an organic educational process. “Because we arrange our wines by varietal and write notes on all of our wines,” Honor says, “customers who love, say, Grenache, can easily explore a Grenache-Tempranillo-Alicante that shares shelf space with Grenache, along with Côtes du Rhônes and other related blends.”

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