The first time I ever blended two wines was an exercise in ignorance. I had a dewberry wine that had beautiful color and clarity but tasted flat. I also had a blackberry wine that was deeply pigmented and very clear, but tasted quite sharp to me. (Today I would describe it differently — excessively malic — but back then it simply tasted sharp.)
I decided to blend the two wines and after some test blends, decided on a ratio of four parts blackberry to three parts dewberry. In my ignorance, I did the right thing and only realized it after the fact. I was quite fortunate the blend turned out well.
Why Blend Wines?
There are several reasons we might want to blend wines. Among these are to correct complementary deficiencies (as in the above example), to integrate complexities from varying bases or to create a new flavor profile.
Blending grape and non-grape wines can yield some interesting and delicious results. It is the ultimate way of creating a new flavor profile. In most cases, the grape wine will predominate, both because it brings body to the blend and because fruit flavors seem to blend better with grape than the other way around. Another way of saying this is that grape wines tend to absorb a fruity character from non-grape wines, but non-grape wines tend to lose their fruitiness to grape wines.
Although the reason to blend grape wines with wines made from other fruits is primarily to create new flavor profiles, let’s review how to blend for other reasons.
Blending to Correct Faults
When two or more wines are similarly based, they can be blended to correct complementary faults. Some wine components can be measured directly — including acidity, pH, alcohol, residual sugar, volatile acidity, tannin concentration and even color (with the right equipment) — and corrected for based on the numbers. Other components such as aroma, fruitiness, off-flavors, oakiness, body, mouthfeel and finish must be adjusted according to the winemaker’s organoleptic judgement.
Corrections for quantitative components can be calculated based on the following formula (from Margalit, “Winery Technology & Operations,” 1996):
P1 + P2 X = Pb (1 + X)
P1 = concentration of the parameter in wine 1
P2 = concentration of the parameter in wine 2
Pb = concentration of the parameter in the blend
X = volume fraction of wine 2 to the volume of wine 1 (which is set to 1.0) in the blend
You can use this formula to work out any blending you want in which a parameter of two wines has been measured and the result you desire is known. For example, suppose wine 1 has a pH of 3.0, wine 2 has a pH of 3.8, and you desire a blend with 3.3 pH. The solution (for X) in this case is 0.6, or 1 part of wine 1 blended with 0.6 parts of wine 2 to produce a wine with 3.3 pH. This is the same as 5 parts of wine 1 blended with 3 parts of wine 2.
There is another method of arriving at the answer that does not require algebra. It is the same tool one uses when making Port — the Pearson Square. Instead of using the square to calculate how to blend wine and brandy (with known alcohol percentages) to hit a target alcohol level, you can use the square to calculate how to blend two wines to any numerical target.
There is a preferred progression for blending if one hopes to correct more than one fault through blending. Better results are obtained if one blends first to correct color, then aroma, then sugar, then fruitiness, then alcohol, then tannin, and then acidity and then pH. Quite often several components can be corrected with one blending. If a wine suffers a singular fault, you need to be certain that blending to correct it does not introduce a second fault. For example, one would not wish to correct for color by blending two highly acidic wines.
Blending Versus Correction
A wine that lacks acidity can be blended with a high-acid wine for correction. But, you might ask, if a wine lacks sufficient acidity, why not simply adjust the acid? There are several reasons I feel blending is better for this, but two are foremost. First, acids change slightly during fermentation and subsequent aging. A complex series of chemical reductions occur which tend to soften their impact on taste. Secondly, these chemical reductions, subtle though they are, contribute to complexities elsewhere that will not be present if acid is simply added to a finished wine. A finished wine to which acid was added will, in fact, taste like a wine to which acid was added but not integrated. It may take years for the wine to harmonize and integrate the new acid. Indeed, it may never do so completely. But blended wines integrate quite rapidly — usually in only a few weeks.
Blending to Integrate Complexities
Blending to integrate complexities is by far the most challenging blending goal. The complexities one desires to integrate may not even be describable. One simply tastes a wine and determines that it possesses something — a je ne sais quoi if you will — that quite possibly might improve another wine. That something may be a butteriness, silkiness or spiciness, a fruit or floral accent in its aroma, a hint of vanilla or citrus in its finish, a crispness or freshness on the wings of the tongue, or even a peaty depth in flavor that defies description. Detecting this quality is the first task. Determining whether or not it might improve another wine is the second task. Quantifying the blend required to carry the complexity successfully is the third task.
Certain wines do naturally blend well and build complexity. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc have improved each other for centuries. But suppose the wines are dissimilar but have unique aromatic and flavor complexities you think might blend well. For example, suppose you have a particularly fruity blackberry — big, full and fresh — and wish to blend it with an oaked, aged, and mellowed Mustang. For most, this would be unfamiliar territory and only a trial could decide the question. But if you have tasted each of the wines and think that a union might work, then by all means try it by moving on to the third task — quantifying the blend required to merge the complexities successfully.
Here is how you might go about blending blackberry with Mustang:
Take 4 wine glasses and label them as follows: M80–B20, M60–B40, B60–M40 and B80–M20.
The letter “M” is for Mustang and “B” is for blackberry, while the numbers represent the relative percentage of each wine in the glass. The majority ingredient is always listed first.
In the first glass put 8 measures (tablespoons, for example) of Mustang and two measures (2 tablespoon) of blackberry. Blend the other samples in a similar manner. Stir the contents of each glass and taste from the weakest blackberry blend to the strongest. When you get to a blend in which the blackberry is overwhelming, select it and the sample before it and set those two glasses aside.
Suppose you selected M80–B20 and M60–B40. Save these two glasses and mix three more as a finer-scale test. The five glasses would be labeled as follows: M80–B20 (selected blend, from first round), M75–B25 (new mixture), M70–B30 (new), M65–B35 (new) and M60–B40 (selected blend).
Mix the test samples and taste from weakest to strongest as before. Select the one that tastes best to you. Since the label is the percentage of Mustang and blackberry in the glass, mix and bottle an intermediate volume (125-ml, 175-ml, etc.) of the two wines in that percentage. Allow this sample to rest for 2-3 weeks, during which time the two wines will integrate their flavors more fully. The French call this integration the “marriage of the wines.” Then, taste it again to ensure the blend meets expectations. If it does not, it can be adjusted slightly prior to bulk blending.
Blending to Create a New Flavor Profile
By far the most common reason for blending is to create a new flavor. This is so common that it is almost the rule rather than the exception. We have previously seen that certain wines do naturally blend well and build complexity. They also change the flavor profile, creating a taste that no single grape (or fruit) possesses.
The great regional wines of Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rioja and countless other appellations are blends, even if they recently acquired a varietal name for the American market. For example, the red wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape may be a blend of up to 13 different grape varieties, although blends of 3–4 are more common.
Blends of grape wines with (non-grape) fruit wines provide an opportunity for home winemakers to experiment with blending and create interesting and memorable wines. As mentioned previously, the grape wine will predominate the blend in most cases. For some ideas for grape/non-grape blends, consider the following.
Red Wine Blends
Red wines range from big, tannic, structured wines to softer, fruitier offerings. A variety of red grapes can partner well with fruits.
Perhaps the most perfect red grape for blending with non-grape fruits is Merlot. This wine is mild, soft and usually without a great personality of its own — the perfect grape for blending with red fruit carrying rough or sharp edges. Blackberry, mayhaw, elderberry, redcurrant, cherry, choke cherry, Saskatoon serviceberry, pomegranate, and agarita all blend well in various proportions with Merlot.
When you need more fruitiness in the grape side of the blend, Zinfandel is a very good choice. Zin works better with red and black raspberry, black cherry, blueberry, loganberry, boysenberry, and blackcurrant than does Merlot. Similar results can be obtained with Tuscan-style Sangiovese, not exactly a fruit-forward legend, but more than capable of carrying the blend.
Native American grape wines, with a hint or a rash of wildness in them, are very good blenders. At the 2004 San Antonio Regional Wine Guild Fall Competition, a Mustang and agarita blend deservedly won Best of Show. Six months earlier, a Cynthiana and elderberry placed respectably. I have already mentioned Mustang and blackberry, but Berlandieri and blackberry works well, too. Labrusca and cherry, Labrusca and chokecherry and Labrusca and blackcurrant are all exciting blends using the lowly Fox Grape. And there are hundreds of other blends out there awaiting your discovery.
White Wine Blends
For Vitis aficionados who want to experiment with non-grape white blendings, the Chardonnay grape makes perhaps the most reliable host wine. Chardonnay will absorb both subtle and heavy flavors, from the delicate nuances of honeysuckle to the full richness of persimmon. The amount and newness of the oak used with the Chardonnay will be a factor with some blends, but generally speaking peach, crabapple, guava, dandelion, mangosteen, passion fruit, nectarine, and kiwi all blend well with Chardonnay. More robust flavors, such as gooseberry, yellow raspberry and pineapple are best blended with the next selection.
Say what you will, the Niagara grape is by far the most successful white blending wine in the American kitchen laboratory. It will handle many of the non-grape flavors Chardonnay will, such as peach, nectarine, crabapple, and kiwi, plus many others. Apple, pear, apricot, orange, gooseberry, wild plum, pineapple, elderflower, yellow raspberry, tangerine, and whitecurrant have all mated well with this hybrid of the north. It accepts both malic-based and citric-based blenders equally and builds complexities where none was really expected.
Blush Wine Blends
Any red non-grape wine can be blended with a white grape wine to make a rosé or blush, but some matches are better than others. The crisp acidity and citrus fruitiness of Riesling blends well with citrus acid-based fruit wines such as red or black raspberry, strawberry, redcurrant, blueberry, huckleberry, bilberry, and (just a touch of) elderberry. These blends seem to work better if both wines being blended are in the mid-semi range (SG 1.002–1.004), but those who prefer dry or sweet Riesling will not be disappointed with similar blends.
Many members of the Rubus genus can contribute to rosé or blush blends, but these fruit are decidedly malic and not all that appreciative of Riesling’s citrus finish. But for weight and smoothness capable of handling blackberry, dewberry, boysenberry, marionberry, loganberry, and rose hip blends, Viognier is the author’s grape of choice. Niagara is a versatile and able blending wine for cherry, chokecherry, pomegranate, service berry and cranberry. Niagara loves them all — especially when used for dessert wine.
As an example of a grape/non-grape blush wine blend, consider the case of a Riesling raspberry. (Yes, raspberry Riesling sounds better, but the more prominent wine is named first.) A 2.5-gallon batch of Riesling and a 1-gallon batch of red raspberry were selected for blending. Both wines had been fermented to dryness (specific gravities SG of 0.994 and 0.992 respectively), stabilized and sweetened to SG 1.006 and SG 1.014 respectively. The idea in blending was to create a blush with a clear hint of raspberry flavor and aroma. The Riesling, while pleasingly acidic and citrusy, lacked the expected perfumed aroma and was just a little dull for Riesling. In truth, it was a good candidate for blending. The initial blending trials proceeded as following.
Four initial test blends were made: 44 mL Riesling, 6 mL raspberry (88–12%); 40 mL Riesling, 10 mL raspberry (80–20%), 30 mL Riesling, 10 mL raspberry (75–25%), 36-mL Riesling, 14-mL raspberry, (72–28%).
All samples were tasted in the order listed above. Of the four, only the 72-28% blend carried a distinct hint of raspberry in the blend’s aroma. The flavor was very nice — crisp, mildly lemon-raspberry, with a citrus finish. In the samples containing less raspberry, the desired aroma and flavor complexity were absent.
The original amount of wine was 2.5 gallons (9.46 L) of Riesling and 1 gallon (3.79 L) of red raspberry. The trials used a total of 150 mL of Riesling and 40 mL of raspberry. This left 9.39 L of Riesling and 3.76 L of raspberry. Using the remaining Riesling required using only 3.65 L of raspberry to preserve the exact ratio. (In practice, the remainder of the Riesling was blended with the remainder of the red raspberry. The additional raspberry — less than 1% more raspberry than sampled — was not consequential.
If you know you are going to make a grape and non-grape blend, some pre-fermentation planning can help you arrive at a better wine. Fruit (or “country”) wines may differ in many ways from grape wines, including the level of alcohol, depth of color, amount of tannin, acidity and pH. Thinking about all of the effects of a blend ahead of time may help you tailor the two wines to each other. For example, if you are making a red blend, you may want to make the red grape wine a little more alcoholic and tannic — and with a little more color depth, — if these characters will be diluted by the fruit wine. The equation presented earlier can help you formulate targets for various parameters.
Two cardinal rules to remember when blending is to make sure all wines contributing to the blend are stable and have aged a few months before blending. By stable we mean they have fermented to dryness or fermentation was arrested several months earlier. Malolactic fermentation, if performed, should be completed and the wine clarified, stabilized with SO2 and cold stabilized. Allowing the wines to age before blending is essential because the flavor and chemistry of all wines change over time. You want these changes to have already occurred before you blend them.
Remember, when naming a blend with the names of the ingredients (or varietals), the majority ingredient is always listed first, the next major ingredient listed second, etc. A Mustang-Huckleberry-Elderberry blend means the Mustang is dominant, the Huckleberry second, and the Elderberry is minor.
One should blend wines to correct or to improve upon what is at hand. Correcting deficiencies or excesses through blending, especially in correcting for acidity, often adds complexity to wines lacking depth. Blending creates flavors no single varietal can offer, and this can be a very good thing.