Chances are, most wine drinkers have come across an incredible blend at some point of their imbibing tenure. Whether you’ve sipped on a popular Bordeaux blend or a GSM (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre), you can say you’ve tried a wine blend, and truthfully, some of the best wines on the market are blends. But what exactly does that mean? What’s the process of making a blend and why do winemakers opt to do it? To find out more, we sat down with a few industry experts from Washington’s Airfield Estates Winery.
What is blending?
In essence, blending is the mixture of specific percentages of finished wines to make up a final product before bottling. “Blending is trying to come up with the best possible product,” says Travis Maple, winemaker for Airfield. “Blending accomplishes structural balance, allowing us to pick up varietal characteristics from each component.”
How is a blend made?
One of the greatest tools a winemaker has is the ability to blend wines, but it requires experience and knowledge, along with a bit of trial and error.
“Through the course of aging, we get to be familiar with each barrel and each lot,” Maple explains. “We taste constantly and put notes down, so we have an idea by the time we’re blending. I typically taste for a full day for every blend we make and come up different variations, including a stylistic approach or something out of the normal. Then, myself [and] others on our tasting panel decide for that possible blend.”
With years of experience in blending, winemakers tend to have an idea of where to start or a stylistic approach they’re trying to achieve, especially if they’re mimicking a blend or similar style year after year.
“When I’m creating blends, I stick to my guidelines, but also give flexibility to achieve the perfect balance,” says Maple. “One of the coolest talents a winemaker has is to blend. You can’t just throw it all in and think it’s done. Percentages make a world of difference.”
In carefully calculating the mixture of a blend, one varietal may be dominant as a base, but percentages are utilized to come up with the ideal ratio of other varietals in the blend. Each varietal added to the calculation offers complementary characteristics. “Even one or two percent can transform a wine,” Maple adds. “A small amount can change it for the better or the worse.”
Why do winemakers choose to blend?
Part of the reasoning for blending is based on the unique characteristics that come from different vintages and varietals.
“We are fond of blends because we are an estate vineyard, and all of our fruit comes from within a two-mile radius for us,” says Marcus Miller, president of Airfield. “Some winemakers get fruit from all over the state, utilizing different AVAs for different flavor profiles. I love getting the complexity that others can achieve through various vineyards by blending.”
But even the varietals utilized make a difference. “It’s about finding the balance point,” Miller says. “With whites, it’s all about the acid and sugar balance and getting that mouthfeel and flavor profile. With reds, it’s more about getting the tannin profile where you want it, ultimately making a wine that’s more balanced.”
According to Maple, Cabernet Franc and Merlot tend to mesh and marry well together, along with Bordeaux varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec. And even the year’s vintage comes into play, changing the blend depending on whether it was a ripe, hot vintage, allowing winemakers to still make wines to be consumed upon release or wines that have the ability to age. Ultimately, a blend may utilize just two varietals, or it may incorporate percentages from six — it’s all up to the winemaker.
“We challenge ourselves and create fun, intriguing wines,” Maple says. “It’s about making the best, balanced wine possible.”