Archive for January, 2010


The Blending Season

Posted on Jan 24 2010 | By

     The grapes are now wine and the search begins for gold medals

Most Virginia winemakers live by the adage, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” During the winter and early spring months, vintners across the Old Dominion are auditioning their individual wines to see which ones will star—and which ones will play supporting roles—in the production of their ultimate cuvees.

It’s a great time to hang around a winery. The test samples never stop emerging from the cellar.

Andy Reagan counsels neophytes

Recently, a group of a dozen wine and food professionals gathered at Jefferson Vineyards in Charlottesville to join winemaker Andy Reagan in the elusive hunt for the perfect wine. The event, billed as a Master Class in Wine Blending, is held annually for both consumers and trade folks and provides a unique opportunity to better understand the art and science of winemaking.

Blending wine has a long history. Legend claims it originated in France as a hedge against any one specific grape crop failure in a given year. If such an event occurred, blending enabled wines to be produced similar in style as previous vintages. Even then, consistency was viewed as an important goal. Chateau strove to produce a certain style and customers eagerly waited each new vintage in anticipation of their favorite wine’s release.

While blending seemingly implies two or more different varietal wines enjoying each other’s company in the same bottle, it’s not necessarily the case. Often, especially for white wine, it’s the same type wine, say Chardonnay, vinified in different styles. For example, an oak blended effort married with a stainless steel rendition, or a primary fermentation only wine integrated with both a primary and a secondary vinified wine. Complexity equals character.

At the session at Jefferson Vineyards, winemaker Reagan opened the seminar by discussing the purpose of blending: to create a balanced wine using various components. The word balanced was underscored.

He stressed the importance of understanding your own palate coupled with the chemistry makeup of the wines, such as its residual sugar, acidity, alcohol levels and tannin density. A particularly interesting observation was that higher alcohol wines convey a sense of sweetness on the palate, but by boosting acidity one can tame the sweet effect.

Since the blending exercise focused on white wines, a review of the basic three types of fermentation and aging was discussed—stainless steel, neutral oak and new oak. One might instinctively think steel-made wine would be of lesser quality, but it’s not the case.

Wine with no oak will showcase its fruit and citrus components, while neutral oak produces a creamier mouth feel with minimal toasty notes. And a new oak barrel will emphasize a host of flavors depending on how intense the oak staves have been toasted, or briefly heated at up to five hundred degrees. The level of toasting—light, medium, or heavy—produces a startlingly array of wine aromas and flavors, including almond, vanilla, cinnamon, bacon, coffee, walnut, pepper, chocolate, tobacco, clove and more.

A new oak barrel will deliver fifty percent of its oak impact in the first year of its use. The second year it drops to twenty-five percent and by the fifth year the barrel will be considered neutral. Yet even then, a soft mouth feel is achieved with a wine aged in a neutral barrel. Oak is amazing wood and virtually the only one used to age wine.

After the basics of blending were discussed, Reagan turned the group loose to produce their own blends. To add to the fun, he challenged the budding winemakers at table number one to compete with their adversaries at table number two. The gantlet was thrown down and the battle of the titans commenced.

One of the first observations made by the nascent vintners was the dramatic effect new oak has on a wine. The palate impression was intense, redolent of toasty vanilla and sweet notes. Initial blends using a heavy portion of new French oaked wine were subsequently toned down with the more judicious use of neutral or steel-made wines. Nevertheless, some bold, full-body oaked beauties survived the cut.

The personality of steel-aged wines did reveal their charms; displaying a clean, more focused fruit profile than their oak aged brothers. And then, a “eureka moment” began to descend on the room as blends of both styles created something greater than the individual wines. A wave of brain neurons began firing off left and right triggering knowing smiles around the cellar.

Hey, this winemaking thing is cool.

Alchemists at work

As the three-hour session drew to a close, “Professor” Reagan brought fourth his own preliminary 2009 white wine blends. The students struggled as they attempted to select their top choices. They were all delicious. But slowly, the future gold medal winners began to reveal themselves.

And as the attendees filed out of the cellar, they asked for assurances they’d get billing when their selected favorites starting pulling down medals at summer wine competitions.

Reagan murmured softly, “Yeah, right,” as he waved the group goodbye and closed the cellar door.  It seems if you want get credit in the wine game, you need to spend more than one afternoon practicing the art.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES