Wine Talk

Snooth User: EMark

Questions on Blended Wines

Posted by EMark, Oct 8, 2012.

I am an analytical kind of guy.  Also, sometimes the silliest questions pop into my mind.  I’ll bet there are people here who can shed some light on my questions, below.  During today’s mid-day constitutional (past all the tract houses, past the elementary school, to the snake- and small rodent-infested hiking trails, up and down the hills, over to the boulevard, across to the little park, next to the stream—glorified drainage ditch—back into tract home neighborhoods, past the church school, past the Halal market, past the middle school, past the Korean church, past the condos, past the drive-thru dairy, past another elementary school, past the fire station, up the final incline back to my neighborhood), I was thinking about blended wines.  It started off by thinking about the percentages different varietals that you see on labels—the other day I had a wine from Argentina whose label indicated 75% Merlot and 25% Malbec.   Usually, if these percentages are given, they are on the back label. 

So, my first question is “What do those percentages mean?”

It seems easy at first.  The percentage indicated on the label represents the proportions of Merlot liquid and Malbec liquid in the bottle. 

Well, does it?  If a winemaker is producing a blend of Merlot and Malbec, does he harvest (or otherwise procure) the Merlot grapes, ferment them and, separately, procure and ferment Malbec grapes, then combine the two fermented juices together prior to bottling?  (In the above case, 3 barrels of Merlot wine for every barrel of Malbec wine.)

Or, does he procure 3 tons of Merlot grapes to every ton of Malbec, and ferment them together?  That seems unlikely, to me.

What about “field blends?”

I have recently learned this term.  Being the Ridge Vineyards fan, I have observed that, more often than not, their (front) label will indicate percentages—e.g., 71% Zinfandel, 22% Petite Sirah and 7% Carignan.  I have learned that many older vineyards (including ones that Ridge uses) have different varietals planted.  So, in the case of my example Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Carignan are growing next to each other.  I assume that even though these three different grapes are growing in the same vineyard, they are each segregated from each other.  Can anybody confirm or correct that notion?

If that is correct, I further assume that they are segregated through the harvesting.  How else could they calculate the percentage so accurately?

So, after harvesting these three varietals, are they fermented separately, or together? 


Reply by JonDerry, Oct 9, 2012.

From what I understand, with most blends the grapes are fermented separate...often the winemaker, or wine-making team will construct various "samples" with different percentages of grapes to determine how the wine should be blended. If it's a good year for a certain varietal, say Cabernet Franc, they'll want to put in as much of that as they can, or at least be more aggressive with it in the sampling process.

Once the final blend is decided upon, whether early in the game or later in the game, the finished product with proportional amounts of each grape will go into barrel (or other means), as the different varietals spend some time "getting to know eachother" before bottling. It's usually at this stage where a barrel sample may be offered while at a winery. 

Reply by GregT, Oct 9, 2012.

I really depends on the winemaker.

In the old days, they planted a mix for several reasons. First, they didn't have DNA testing so sometimes they thought they had one grape but it turned out to be a different one.

Second, even when they did know, say thru ampelography or having done a massale selection (which wouldn't have been fool-proof itself) or taken cuttings from something they already knew, they still frequently planted several varieties to hedge their bets. Spring frost, summer drought, or early frost in the fall - those things might affect one variety more than another and that way they wouldn't lose the whole crop.  And if something is interplanted in the vineyard, you're most likely going to pick it all at once and vinify them all together. It would be a nightmare to do it any other way. That's still the way the most traditional producers in CdP do it.

OTOH, sometimes they knew exactly what they had and they'd take a particular part of the vineyard that was maybe a little warmer or a little cooler or a little rockier or sloped differently and maybe they'd put a little Barbera or Graciano there because it happened to ripen nicely in that spot and they'd mix it into the Nebbiolo or Tempranillo to add some interesting character.  Plenty of producers in Spain and Italy today who still work like that.

As people got better at identifying things, and particularly since the Americans started planting heavily in the 1970s, winemakers all over the world started looking for specific clones and rootstocks and planting accordingly. So you may have  a vineyard with some clone XX on rootstock EE but on the big hill you put that clone on rootstock FF because that hill ripens differently and so on. People with larger holdings often have highly detailed maps of their vineyards these days, with different sections having specific orientation, density, trellissing, rootstocks, varieties, etc.  Since you've taken pains to match rootstock to scion to soil to terroir, you probably don't do a field blend. To keep the control you have established, you vinify everything separately and blend later. 

Many many winemakers work like that, just like Jon says. You do tastings where there's 5, 10, 15, 20% of variety A mixed with with variety B and when you find the blend you like or the blend you feel will give you the greatest longevity or the highest points, that's the blend for that year. Blending is really important actually - that's one part of what consultants get paid for.  Part of that work is also the selection of the oak and the oak regime.

But even today some winemakers vinify everything together rather than do the blend later, even if the grapes come from identifiable parts of the vineyard and could actually be vinified separately.  My hunch however, is that there are fewer and fewer such field blends these days.  Besides, remember, people are increasingly into "natural" winemaking and therefore they want absolute control over everything. Makes it a lot more fun to risk destruction of the entire lot by using some arbitrary ambient yeast or not putting in any sulfur. 

As far as purchased grapes go, you could do those any way you want, but if you're actually purchasing one variety or another, you may as well ferment separately and make a blend later.  Also helps you taste the final wine rather than the unfermented grapes - no need then to stick with the 1/3 Merlot if your blending indicates that your wine is better with less or more. 

There are other reasons for co-fermentation tho.  In the N. Rhone, they often co-ferment some Viognier with the Syrah, and today a number of producers in Australia and WA and CA do that. In Tuscany they used to blend some white with the Sangiovese too. The purpose is not to add acidity or aromatics - Viognier is not all that acidic anyway.  The co-fermentation of a small amount of white grapes helps stabilize the color of the red. 

Reply by outthere, Oct 9, 2012.

Generally when grapes are co-fermented it will say as much on the label. Most Cali Dago blends are picked together and fermented together unless they are making separate varietal bottlings. The Italians who originally planted the vineyards did so to create drinkable blends and didn't plan on separate harvests for each variety. 

Bedrock does this with their Heirloom wines. Produce what the vineyard gives you. But Morgan also picks separate varietals for things such as Rose individually. I would venture to guess that the Ridge wines express the makeup of the vineyard with regards to the percentage of each grape.

Many wines labeled as Zinfandel are often a field blend of many different grapes but with the % of Zin being over 75 they are simply labeled Zin or Old Vine Zin. But for other Bdx styled blends for instance it is all done  in the lab. Doing blending exercises is pretty interesting and it's very revealing to see how much of an effect  a dollop of this of a splash of that can have on the character if a glass of wine.

Its fun to try this at home.  Especially when you have something very astringent. Take another wine with a mellow profile and mix just a small bit and see the difference. Viognier is great with Syrah and can bring a very young bottle to life. Of course YMMV.

Reply by JonDerry, Oct 9, 2012.

The Bedrock Heirloom definitely came to mind when thinking of "field blend", it could've been the only field blend I've had for all I know, but it was good.

If I had to guess on Ridge, I'd guess they blend in a lab for the most part. When I visited their tasting room the first time, we had a great experience and the guy behind the bar seemed pretty well tapped in with what was going on, and I remember him saying "everything's so scientific these days", clearly the influence of the assistant winemaker, but I think this guy is pulling a lot of the strings at Ridge these days (name evades me), as Draper gets older. Plus, they're a pretty big producer so precision and technology are sure to make sense for them.

Good call on mixing Viognier w/ young Syrah at home. It can be hard to find a good and reasonably priced domestic Viognier, but I've had good experiences w/ Jaffurs.

Reply by Richard Foxall, Oct 9, 2012.

My understanding is that the viognier cofermented with the syrah paradoxically makes the wine darker, which no one understands perfectly. 

Those DCV field blends are often a historical accident, but I think Draper at Ridge keeps stuff separate--over the years, his percentages have varied according to what's needed to get his style.  Keep in mind that lots of the stuff has been replanted over the years because of phylloxera, so it's not always clear whether the field blend changed because of planting or if they tinker with the amounts after fermenting or it's an accident of harvest-yield variation. 

Here's a blurb from the Ridge blog about one of their "Zins":

2007 Lytton Springs

—Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, & Carignane—

After a dry winter and spring, budbreak came early. A warm August ripened the fruit earlier than expected, and we harvested the thirty-four parcels as flavors developed fully, fermenting each separately on its natural yeasts. Aged for fifteen months in air-dried american oak, this classic Lytton Springs is remarkable for its richness, balance, and elegant texture. It will soften and gain complexity over the next ten years. JO (11/08)

But then again, they do a little co-fermenting because of the field blends, so we are all correct:

2008 Geyserville
—Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Carignane, & Mataro—

In tank, color and tannin extraction was unusually rapid, as were uninoculated primary fermentations. We reduced pump-overs and pressed early, avoiding harsher tannins. Zinfandel and carignane showed exceptional quality, and form the core of the blend. (Wines from the petite sirah parcels were too tannic; the six percent included comes from a field-blend.)  Twenty percent new oak adds exotic spice. Superb concentration and firm acid will allow this fine zinfandel to develop over the next ten to fifteen years. EB (11/09)

More and  more growers want to control what they are picking because they still get more for certain varieties than others.  Dan Teldeschi has very old fields and makes a field blend, but he sells straight Zin to Ravenswood and others--it could be a blend if they'll accept it and he can be sure it stays above 75%, but if he's picking separately--and one might well do that if they ripen differently, which is part of the point of planting more than one kind, have some that will ripen more quickly in colder years--he might as well control the fermentation according to the grape variety rather than hope they all want to be treated the same way. 

Did anyone really answer whether the percentages were based on harvested amounts or volume of liquid in bottle?  Not sure how big a difference it would make, but it could be some where you have berries with lots of skin and little pulp (Petite Sirah) and grapes with bigger berries and thinner skins (Zin, for instance). 

Reply by GregT, Oct 10, 2012.

They're based on liquid in the bottle, especially if you've harvested and vinified separately. You can harvest a lot and then reject most of it or all of it.

BTW - most of what people are talking about in this thread refers to CA wine. Not always the same in Europe, and they rarely, if ever, indicate on the bottle whether the grapes were co-fermented.  In fact, in some places it's not even legal to tell you what the blends are because the "terroir" is supposed to be paramount. So especially in places that have older vineyards, it's not so cut and dried. I was at a huge Bordeaux tasting and asked one winemaker about his blending and he sighed and told me that out of the thousands of people there, not a single European had ever brought up the subject and that almost all the Americans had.  He couldn't understand why. We ended up talking for a long time and I theorized that since we're a relatively young wine culture in the US and we've been taught by people like Mondavi that the variety is key, we focus on that.

It's my theory anyway.

As far as the co-fermenting the whites w the reds, there was some thought that the copigmentation molecules, which lack color themselves, form associations with anthocyanins to enhance the color, as in the extract below.  However, more recently I've read conflicting reports, so who knows.

Anthocyanins are what gives wine color and they're not very soluble in wine. They're positively charged and can't aggregate by themselves so they require other molecules to form the large color compounds.  Some white grapes provide the necessary assistance; not all white grapes tho.

The Copigmentation of Anthocyanins and
Its Role in the Color of Red Wine:
A Critical Review

R. Boulton

Am. J. Enol. Vitic. 52:2 (2001)

The extension of this reasoning of grape mixtures includes
the possibility that certain white cultivars might be rich in cofactors
and that when cofermented with red grapes deficient in
cofactors, more copigmentation and capturing of the anthocyanins
could occur, giving more color in the resultant wine. Because
white juices are not usually fermented on their skins, the
levels of certain cofactors, especially the slightly soluble flavones
present in the skins, will not usually be reflected in the phenolic
analysis of these wines. The traditional use of some white grapes,
such as Trebbiano or Malvasia, with Sangiovese and other red
grapes in certain regions of Italy, are good examples of this.
Others examples exist in certain wine regions of France, Spain,
and Argentina. The increase in color of a port wine when a white
skin extract was introduced was noted by Timberlake [112], and
it is an example of color enhancement due to copigmentation,
resulting from the cofactors from the white skins.
Gogliotti et al. [40] has shown, based on the wines from six
seasons, that the best color enhancement of one-year-old
Sangiovese wines occurred when Trebbiano and Malvasia comprised
between 5 and 15% of the grape mix and a further 10%
was from Canaiolo. The addition of too high a percentage of
white grapes will lead to progressive pigment adsorption to the
skins and pulp, beyond any color enhancement effects, resulting
in a net loss in color. Any concern regarding dilution (or
extension of the red wine volume) can be overcome when only
the pressed skins are used. However, there will be no advantage
in this approach if the red grapes already have sufficient amounts
of the cofactors or if the white grapes have insufficient amounts
of cofactors to give. It is clear that not all white cultivars will be
suitable or acceptable and there are many possible combinations
that need to be investigated.

Reply by Richard Foxall, Oct 10, 2012.

GregT, it may be true that the Europeans don't ask about the blending, but the wineries are keeping records and the information is usually available, even when it does not appear on the label.  Asimov's article today is about labeling, although the issue is more about additives.  Funny that in a country with plenty of regulations about wine--you can't even grow certain grapes in certain areas of France, and you can't call your wine by the region that it's grown in if it contains non-approved grapes--you are forbidden from saying what grapes go in it and not required to divulge that you put non-grape components in it.  It's practically an anti-labeling requirement.  Weird.

How accurate can the juice numbers be if you coferment something that was picked as a field blend?  Let's say I grow PS and Zin side by side, which is common, and you throw in a bit of carignane. My PS will produce less juice per pound of grapes, which I haven't even weighed separately because I picked them together.  Plus, I might have lost most of one or the other on the sorting table (although that would tend to bring them closer, since Zin gets more rot as a rule).  Then I throw them in the crusher together.  So how do I know what the proportions were?

Reply by outthere, Oct 10, 2012.

When we sorted on Sunday there was 5% PS by weight included with the Zin fruit. The two were picked separately but added together in one of the pick bins. They were sorted, destemmed and put into fermentation bins together. The difference in juice production between the two is minimal so the spec sheet says 95% Zinfandel 5% Petite Sirah while the label reads Zinfandel. There is wiggle room just like there is with listed alcohol content so it's not necessarily exact.

When bending is done in th lab the amounts listed are true to the labeled blend.

Reply by JonDerry, Oct 10, 2012.

Dare I say, some of these field blend percentages may be a guess?

Reply by outthere, Oct 10, 2012.

I guess!


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