Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Wining...and Blending with Four Brix...

Blending wine is an art. The goal of blending is to create a wine that is greater than the sum of its parts; to make a wine that other people will find pleasing to the nose and palate, and will want to buy from you. To make this happen, the winemaker must be part chemist, part artist. Part mad scientist helps, too.

I was invited to participate in a group blending experiment at Four Brix Winery in Ventura. Winemaker Gary Stewart sources fruit mainly from Paso Robles, carts it down to Ventura and makes wonderfully appealing, delicious wines. Having completed the bottling of the wines that were planned, Gary found himself with some wine still quite viable for further blending for a special bottling for the Brix Heads - the winery's club members.

Let's get some blending background first:

A standard varietal like Syrah or Chardonnay, is made from the same type of grape. In California, a varietal needs to be 75 percent of one type of grape, while in Europe it's generally 80 percent. It's possible for wineries to add other grapes to a varietal to enhance the elements and still call it a single varietal wine. Blends are what their name suggests. They typically consist of at least 40-50 percent of one type of grape and a smaller mix of two or more other grapes.

Blending maximizes the expression of a wine. It enhances aromas, color, texture, body and finish, making it a more well-rounded and complex wine. If a wine doesn't have a strong scent, a winemaker can add a small percentage of a more aromatic grape, or a wine that could have been aged in oak barrels, fermented in various kinds of vessels or harvested in different phases of ripeness. In Bordeaux, the heart of most blends is Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot can be used to give the wine a better aroma and make it seem fresher or smoother. Cabernet Franc is often added for structure or tannin concentration to make a more powerful wine. Creating a great blend also depends on the characteristics of the year and the expression of each grape. The possibility for combinations that result in a quality blend are infinite.

Winemakers will often make a barrel of wine solely for the purpose of blending. As the grapes are being harvested, winemakers determine what they think will be the best formula for a blend. Allotting specific barrels for blending allows them to experiment in finding the best types of mixtures. The idea is to highlight each grape's strength and complement the other grapes being used in the blend.

Winemakers generally mix blends in a steel tank. Lower cost blends are rarely aged in oak and higher cost blends are generally aged in oak. Some winemakers put blended wines into an oak barrel half way through the aging process, while others put the wines together one to two weeks before bottling. Some try letting the wines ferment together from start to finish. The goal is to develop the best of everything in the wines and each winery determines what approach works best for them.

White wines tend to be pure varietals. However, there are some exceptions, as in Bordeaux where Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon are combined. Conversely, Pinot Noir is a type of grape that is rarely blended. That is why when you are having a red Burgundy it will likely be a 100 percent Pinot Noir.

That was longer than I thought it would be, but now we've a place to start from.

Gary had Mourvedre, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Merlot 'left over,' and our goal - with his guidance - was to agree on the blend for the 2012 Brix Mix, a blend that would have distribution limited to Brix Heads only.

First we tasted the individual wines in order to get a sense of what the individual parts of the blend could be. The Mourvedre was highly acidic with tart berries and a green, herbal quality. The Cabernet was black cherry with silky tannins and baking spices on the finish. The Syrah was smooth and smoky with root beer and cherry cola overtones. The Merlot was herbaceous and flowery with black pepper on the finish.

Gary in back/Chris in front
Gary provided the first 'recipe' in milliliters, we assigned a person (the lovely Chris - a member of the family) the role of chemist, and we started blending and tasting and writing our notes. In all, we tried 8 different blends, plus some personal blending attempts, and while Gary was trying for consensus, it was getting more and more clear that 42+ individuals all had very different ideas about what they liked. Our table felt strongly that blend #3 was the tastiest, but other tables felt just as strongly that #2 or #5 or #7 fit the bill.

The blend we liked best? Using a graduated cylinder to measure enough wine for 7 of us to taste (that's 7 ounces), Blend #3 was comprised of 95ml Mourvedre, 73ml Cabernet, 23ml Syrah, and 16ml Merlot. This mixture gave us almond chocolate cherry in the nose, cherry and cinnamon in the mouth, and a long, silky finish that had us wishing we had made more. Oh, and we did at the end, just to make sure that it was what we really liked!

It will be interesting to see what Gary and the team at Four Brix finally decide on. All of us who participated will receive a bottle of the finished wine in April, although Gary cautioned us that it really won't be ready for drinking for a while.

Luckily there's plenty of other Four Brix wines to drink while we're waiting for the Brix Mix to be ready! Cheers to everyone at Four Brix - staff and guests - for a terrifically educational and entertaining day!


Eve said...

Thanks for a great lesson once again Goddess! Will help me get through my blending class on Saturday!

Goddess of Wine said...

Thanks, Eve! I can't wait to hear about your experience, too.