Super Blends

One group of internationally famous wines — the Super Tuscans — has come to represent revolutionary change in the wine world in the last few decades. After long-held traditional principles and practices controlled European winemaking for decades (or centuries), some Italian winemakers in the Tuscany region deliberately broke from tradition and began making new blends. Their revolution was not only successful as a commercial enterprise, it brought about changes in European laws to accommodate the new directions. What were the winemakers trying to do, and why? What can we, as home winemakers, learn from their experience?

One wine associated with Tuscany for many years has been Chianti. In particular, the Chianti Classico sub-region was renowned for excellent Sangiovese-based wines. Tradition in the region had long guided the blending and proportions of various grape varieties, with Sangiovese always dominant. Wines made from Sangiovese grapes are often bright with acidity, have prominent cherry notes, and medium level tannins. In the 1960s, the Italian government codified long winemaking traditions into the DOC system: Denominazione di Origine Controllata. The system was intended to assure consumers that Italian wines they purchased would be made in a style historically typical of the region where they were produced, were composed of varieties that were historically appropriate to that region, and that certain quality standards were met. In the case of Chianti, the rules at that time encoded some conditions that worked against developing wines in a modern international style. The regulations reflected the original work of Baron Ricasoli in the nineteenth century when he set the recipe for Chianti as 70% Sangiovese, 15% Canaiolo, and 15% Malvasia Bianca. Wines were often very light, intended for immediate consumption and did not age well.

Similar regulations throughout Western Europe had a point, of course. Governments and regional winegrowers wanted to protect reputations, restrict unscrupulous competitors, and ensure a market for products of assured quality. In some regions, long-standing rules have continued to serve producers well and wines continue to be produced accordingly. For instance, in 1855 the châteaux of Bordeaux were classified and those classifications continue in wide use today. The red wines of Bordeaux have long been made from the permitted varieties Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot (plus the rarely seen Carménère). Many full-bodied, robustly tannic, long-lived wines are made with these varieties there and around the world.

It was world market acceptance of Bordeaux varietals that helped prompt the Super Tuscan revolution. The light, tart 1970s Chiantis were competing with the bold Bordeaux blends from France and Cabernet Sauvignons from Napa Valley. In response, some Tuscan wine producers decided they would make wine the way they wanted it, disregarding regulations. With plantings of Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot alongside traditional Sangiovese, they made big, bold wines that met their expectations for style and appeal. Because the grape blend did not meet government regulations, they could not be labeled with the Chianti DOC designation. At first, they could not be marketed as anything more than vino da tavola or table wine, the lowest classification at the time. Nonetheless, market appeal was excellent and the wines sold for high prices. They became known as the Super Tuscans. Eventually, Italian regulations were updated and today Chianti (and Chianti Classico) can be made with up to 100% Sangiovese grapes (75% minimum), up to 10% Canaiolo, and up to 20% any other approved red grape variety, including the Bordeaux varieties or Syrah. Use of white grapes in Chianti Classico is now not only not required, it is prohibited by law.

Breaking the Rules At Home

When the makers of the Super Tuscan blends set out to craft wines that pleased their palates, they changed the very definitions of the wines they started out rebelling against. To a home winemaker, the fuss seems a bit quaint, since we have no geographic or variety limitations to restrict us. Even commercial wines in the US are restricted primarily regarding label claims as to grape varieties and geographic origins. They can grow any grape where they want to and there are no “classified” châteaux with legal standing in the marketplace. The regulatory battles of the Italians do not impede our home winemaking community, but their actions can inspire us to new adventures.

The Super Tuscan producers had an abundance of a traditional “middleweight” wine: Sangiovese. By creatively blending that wine with bolder grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, they made a more appealing wine that retained the essence of its historic origins but surpassed prior examples and brought new enjoyment to the region’s wines. You can take a page from their book and pursue your own imagination when you find yourself in similar circumstances. As a grower of a hobby vineyard of Pinot Noir, another middleweight variety, I can imagine a couple of scenarios that might set other home winemakers up for a project like this. First, you may be growing grapes in a climate that will not allow production of exactly the wine you would like to make. My hobby vineyard is west of Petaluma in California’s Sonoma County. It is a cool climate zone, ideally suited to the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that I grow. Some excellent commercial Syrahs are also grown around here. Bordeaux varieties are much harder to ripen properly here and grapes like Zinfandel or Petite Sirah are rare. Because of my cool climate, any red wine I make is likely to be high in acid and lighter in color and body than wine grown in a warmer region. But I can blend like a Super Tuscan!

Another situation for emulating the Super Tuscans may come from the thriving curiosity I see among my fellow home winemakers. Just the intriguing prospect of making something new and different from what you have made before may have you seeking out different combinations of grapes to mix and match. So whether you happen to have a ready source of middleweight grapes that you want to beef up, or you simply crave the novelty of a new winemaking adventure, you can take a crack at one or more of these blends.

Blending the Super Tuscan Way

Before you set out to blend any wine, first have a vision of what you want. You need to imagine what you are trying to achieve — just as the first Italian makers of Super Tuscans did — if you are to have any chance of getting there. Then grow it, source it, seek it out, or supplement with kit wines to get the components you need for your vision. To be close to the Super Tuscan model, you would start with Sangiovese and add Bordeaux. Pinot Noir, Grenache, and Cabernet Franc are other vinifera varieties that could lend themselves to being the core of a boosted blend. French-American hybrids like Maréchal Foch may also suit. For the heavyweight additions in your blend, you can look at the Bordeaux varietals and beyond. Other notable contenders include Petite Sirah, Syrah, and Zinfandel. In every blend, the intent is to make a wine that in some way surpasses the individual wines from which it is blended.

There are at least three ways you can produce a blended wine with your desired “super” characteristics. The first is to blend completed, stable wines after fermentation is complete. Some such wines are aged after blending while others are blended shortly before bottling. The second approach is to co-ferment compatible musts at the same time. That can be done directly with grapes or you can combine frozen musts. Finally, you can add a suitable grape concentrate to a finished or partially finished wine and re-ferment.

To make a blend from finished wine, select grapes or kit ingredients that you think will be compatible. Certain traditional blends (and the newer traditions of Super Tuscans) are well recognized for working well together. You might try a Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon along with something like Merlot or Malbec. Also popular are blends that originated in the Rhône region of France, using Syrah combined with perhaps Grenache or Carignane. You can buy kit versions of the Super Tuscan blends or you could make a Sangiovese and try your own additions, either from within the Bordeaux group or venture out with something like Zinfandel or Petite Sirah. If you take the usual measurements on your component wines, including pH, titratable acidity (TA), and Brix (sugar level before fermentation to estimate alcohol after), you can take balancing those factors into account in making your blend. In his book Techniques in Home Winemaking, Daniel Pambianchi has a thorough chapter on balancing wine characteristics in a blend and how to do the associated math.

If you are trying to achieve something like a Super Tuscan — a powerful red wine with a rich tannin profile supported by fruit flavors — you need to go beyond the measured factors. As Pambianchi notes, there are no home winemaker tools for measuring tannins, a key component for achieving a balanced wine. You need to rely on careful tasting to evaluate the tannic contribution. The same goes for overall aroma, flavor, and mouthfeel characteristics. Bench trials are essential. Use a wine thief to collect samples of your component wines and make sample blends in various ratios. Keep careful notes of your blends and have at least one other person taste them. When you find one you like, scale that up to your full size batch. If you are going to age the blend, do so for at least four weeks to verify that the blending has not caused any instability in the wine. If you intend to blend just before bottling, make a gallon or so (4 L) of the blend at least four weeks ahead and monitor it for any problems. If it remains clear and sound, blend for bottling.

My best red blend is one that aged for several months after blending. For the 2014 harvest, I got together with friends to purchase the entire crop of a hobby vineyard consisting mostly of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, along with a small amount of Malbec. We fermented those varieties individually, pressed them off, and aged some of the Cabernet Sauvignon in a hectoliter (26-gallon) barrel and the rest of the wines in demijohns and carboys. About a week after that harvest, we picked the Pinot Noir grapes from our backyard hobby vineyard. That provided enough Pinot to fill a second hectoliter (26-gallon) barrel and a couple of carboys. A few months later, my daughter Charlotte and I spent a day racking everything. We pumped each barrel into a stainless steel tank, washed the barrel, pumped back previously reserved carboys and topped up with wine from the tank. Carboys and demijohns were racked to newly sanitized ones, always allowing for the loss of volume you get when leaving lees behind. At the end of the day, we found ourselves with a little bit of each wine left: Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Malbec, and Pinot Noir. Certainly not a traditional blend! We combined portions in a graduated beaker in roughly the ratio we had left over and tasted it right there in the cellar. It was good, so we racked all of them together into a 9-gallon (34 L) demijohn. The largest component was Pinot Noir, so we had emulated the Super Tuscans by adding the bigger, darker Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah (plus some Malbec) to the lighter Pinot. We aged the wine we called Rouge de Maison (house red) alongside the individual varietals for a few more months, bottling in August. While I think the Cabernet is the best of the lot, the house red is also very, very good.

If you instead want to co-ferment, you may find it easiest to use concentrates, or frozen must. There are some distinct challenges if you want to use fresh grapes. The grapes will have to be varieties that ripen together in the climate zone you are sourcing from and you will need to pick them within a few days of each other. Either way, you will need to guess at a likely ratio right from the start since it will be beyond your control once the must is mixed. For a couple of years, a friend of mine and I tried to purchase some Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre grapes that would all be ripe at the same time. We had planned a challenge where she would try to craft an elegant wine like the famous Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines of France while I used the same lot of grapes to make a bold GSM (Grenache-Shiraz-Mourvèdre) like those from Australia. Unfortunately, we never lined up all the varieties at the same time and never undertook the challenge.

For the most recent harvest, though, I was able to arrange for a co-fermentation. In this case, the ratio was determined in advance because I bought the crop of a small hobby vineyard that is inter-planted in Petite Sirah and Zinfandel. The vineyard manager estimated that it is about 90% Zinfandel and 10% Petite Sirah. While Zinfandel often has a rich, dark color on its own, the color is even deeper in this blend. The prominent tannin profile of the Petite Sirah is quite noticeable in the blend, which also retains the fruit-forward flavor and aroma of its majority Zinfandel component. Together, they seem to be turning into a very memorable wine. We will see what becomes of it after a few months of aging.

The third technique, adding concentrate and refermenting, may be my own development. My brother John once complained that my Pinot Noir lacks “oomph.” He is right. It is a cool-climate Pinot Noir, so by variety and by terroir it is high in acid, low in alcohol and, in some years, light in color. A few years ago, the crop was large enough that by January I could tell I had plenty of wine for my hectoliter (26-gallon) barrel plus adequate topping wine. At racking, I put 5 gallons (19 L) of Pinot in a 6.5-gallon (25 L) carboy, added a 46 oz. (1.3 Kg) can of Petite Sirah concentrate at 68 °Brix, and inoculated with Uvaferm 43 yeast. Kept in the dark in the kitchen (where it could stay warm), the wine eventually fermented dry again, finishing at over 17% ABV (alcohol by volume). From the concentrate, it also picked up a much darker color. My brother liked it so much that I repeated the project the following year using Zinfandel concentrate.

Whites and Rosés

In addition to “super” red blends, you can blend target wines using the same principles in whites or rosés. My homegrown Chardonnay, like the Pinot, tends to be high in acidity due to the cool growing conditions. Besides bottling some every year by itself, I have also made a number of blends with it, using purchased grapes. The first experiment was to make just a case of wine for the daughter of some close friends on the occasion of her wedding. That year, we made a Chenin Blanc with fruit from Clarksburg near the Sacramento River. I blended samples of that wine with the house Chardonnay at ratios of ¼ to ¾, ½ and ½, and ¾ to ¼. Counting the straight wines, we had five samples for tasting. The bride, the groom, and the bride’s parents joined us to pick a favorite. With 50:50 as the winner, we made the blend on bottling day and presented a case of wine to the happy couple. The rich, lower-acid Chenin Blanc blended so well with the homegrown Chardonnay that I have made the same blend in two more vintages. I have also blended Chardonnay successfully with Viognier.

While most rosé wines are made from red grapes by pressing off of the skins early, a pink wine can be made by blending red and white. Since my Pinot tends to be a bit light anyway, it lends itself to these experiments. A couple of times I have made 5-gallon (19 L) batches of rosé on bottling day (taking a risk on stability without the 4-week waiting period). When I combined my Chardonnay with the Pinot in a 50:50 ratio, the wine was stable and delicious. Apparently there were no incompatible features with those wines. On the other hand, when I did the same thing with Pinot Noir and a Pinot Gris, sediment developed in the bottle (although the wine tastes good when decanted). So if you want to undertake a Super Tuscan of your own, or any unconventional blend, be aware of possible instability issues. But the sky is the limit on your creativity — go for it like the Italians did!

Pícaro Mezcla de Vinos Kit (Outlaw Wine Blending for Kits) sidebar by Tim Vandergrift

Wine kits are a brilliant place to try some outlaw blending. Kit manufacturers have a wide selection of different wine types and styles so that you’ll be able to make your own Super Tuscan and do a big blending party.

Blending Basics

• Do blending from finished wine. Pre-fermentation blending is extremely tricky and may mess up fermentation and clearing schedules.

• Have a goal in mind before you start. Are you trying to make your lean, dry Chianti sleeker and fatter? Want to bring up the tannin and blackberry on your Tempranillo? Itching for a customized GSM (Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre)? Write it down.

• Blend wines of similar type. Cabernet and Sangiovese for example.

• Decide what your base is. This is the backbone of your blend, and what you’re going to hang all of the other wines from.

• Choose your adjunct wines carefully. Use those that you think are going to improve the base. Keep it to two at most, otherwise your palate will get fatigued and your intent may get lost.

• Do not blend bad wine. It’s a waste. Throw bad wine away.

• Always bench trial your blends. A 3 ounce mistake is easy to shrug off; 24 gallons (90 L), not so much

• Blend wines of the same age. Well-aged wines blended with younger ones seem jangled — simultaneously tired and green

• Write it all down. As ever, if it turns out great, you’ll be able to do it again. If it’s a disaster, you’ll know what not to do.

1. When you’ve decided what you want to achieve, set up your bench trials with clear, disposable plastic cups and a set of graduated cylinders and syringes or pipettes. Set up and label 5 cups and add to each one in succession: 99 mL, 95 mL, 90 mL, 80 mL, 50 mL of your base wine. Then add in order: 1 mL, 5 mL, 10 mL, 20 mL, and 50 mL of your first adjunct wine, so that each cup totals 100 mL.

2. Stir gently and taste each one in succession. Make careful notes and be aware if the wine seems to be reaching a better-tasting state that it can go past that and lose the edge.

3. Choose a winner and make up a half-liter of your blend, arrange 5 new cups and go through the same blending sequence with your second adjunct wine 99:1, 95:5, etc. Re-taste, and choose a final champion. Math it up — If you started with an 80/20 primary blend and used it at a rate of 80/20 with your second adjunct, the math for the first two is 80 mL x 80%=64 mL, 20 mL x 80%=16 mL, and your 20 mL second adjunct.

After that, it’s just a wee bit more math and you’re home free! Take your winner’s 100 mL blend amounts, multiply them by 7.5 and that’s how much you need for a bottle.

In our example
Base wine 64 mL x 7.5 = 480 mL
1st adjunct 16 mL x 7.5 = 120 mL
2nd adjunct 20 mL x 7.5 = 150 mL

Multiply that by the number of bottles your want and blend. For a dozen bottles of this blend:

480 mL x 12 = 5.76 liters
120 mL x 12 = 1.44 liters
150 mL x 12 = 1.8 liters

Blend these amounts together, fill and cork a dozen bottles, and just like that, you’re an outlaw winemaker.