Ask Wine Wizard

Blending and testing: Wine Wizard



The Zin of Blending

We just blended a 55 gal. 1997 oak barrel with a blend of 60% Zinfindel and 40% Merlot. Whatever comes out, we’re going to drink it! But could we have done better with a different combination? Please advise.

Gary Anderson
Lodi, California

Since I can’t taste your wine and so don’t know the profile of each individual component, it’s hard to give you “the right” answer. And I would hazard that there really is no right answer; it all depends on what you are trying to achieve in your final wine. Zinfandel is a fun grape to work with because it can be made in so many different styles, from heavy Port-style dessert wines to light, dry rosés. Similarly, Zinfandel exhibits extreme character differences depending on where and how it’s grown. Head-trained Zin from Amador County, California, for example, can be really rich and almost Port-like (even when made in a table wine style) whereas I find that “old vine” Zinfandel from the Russian River appellation of California is more of an elegant wine with fewer tannins and can be more food-friendly.

Which one is better? It’s impossible to say. It all depends on what it is that you like to drink. Sorry to put so much of the responsibility on you, but especially for home winemakers who aren’t marketing their wines to the mass populace (or even to a smaller, more local market), you are essentially making wine to please yourself.

That being said, however, I do think that at some level even we commercial winemakers do tend to make wines that we personally like to drink (or at least, let’s hope we do). To that end, there are some “classic” Zin blends out there that do seem to have risen to the fore as the more tasty and most logical of the bunch. I think Petite Sirah (also known as Durif) is an excellent blender for Zin. Traditionally a varietal popular in France, it was brought to California by nineteenth-century immigrants who settled in the Sierra foothills as well as in the Northern California wine country around Sonoma and Napa. Its inky blackness contributes to a denser, more purple color profile whereas its blackberry and brambleberry flavors lend dark fruit and berry characters to the more “red fruit” (currants, raspberries) aromas that Zinfandel can have. Petite Sirah also can really round out the mouthfeel of a Zinfandel and can contribute acidity and structure. Especially if you’ve got a lighter-bodied Zinfandel that lacks a little color and acid, Petit Sirah can be your best choice for a blender.

Don’t neglect the most traditional of all Zinfandel blending techniques – that of “field blending”. This practice started out sometimes not as a conscious practice but more of a happy (or haphazard) accident. As European immigrants (especially from Switzerland and Italy) planted Zinfandel and other Vitis vinifera varietal cuttings in California and other parts of the United States, they didn’t always know what they were putting in the ground. Lacking today’s genetic coding and plant identification tools, many vineyards ended up with a good percentage of “mystery grapes” intermixed with the intended grapevines. As early Californian winemakers discovered that these inter-planted vineyards usually made some pretty good wine due to the different grapes contributing something to the blend, they began to purposefully plant mixed grapes together. Back in the pre-Prohibition days, before Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay became popular in California, the most commonly inter-planted field blends consisted of Zinfandel, Alicante Bouchet, Carignane and Petit Sirah. “Field Blend” Zinfandels are still made today, with some from Amador, Sonoma and Napa counties coming from mixed old-vine (30-100 years old) Zinfandel vineyards that still reflect their nineteenth century roots.

So was your choice to add Merlot to your Zin a good one? No doubt there are many other blends you could explore in the future. However, if you feel that the Merlot/Zin blend was better as a sum than as its individual parts and especially if it tastes good and you enjoy the results, then you did the right thing.

The Acid Test

I crushed and sulfited my Cab grapes. In doing the initial tests I got the following readings. Brix was 23.5 (+.22 temp correction) = 23.7, S.G. 1.099 (+.013 temp correction) = 1.112, TA = .60 g/100 mL, pH = 3.02, Temp = 75 •F (24 •C) In the last WineMaker contest all the judges said my wine lacked some balance and finish. I wanted to raise the acid level to .70 g/100 mL to help with the balance and finish but I am afraid the pH will go too low and prevent the survival of the yeast. I used the Vinoferm test kit for the TA and have a digital Omega 3+ pH meter for the pH. I calibrated the meter with a 7.0 NIST buffer prior to starting the measurements (the wine shop was out of 4.01 buffer packs). I took the readings 3 times from three separately retrieved samples. I also took three samples to test the TA and besides the color change indication, I tested the samples post color change for neutral pH of which I got readings of 6.98, 7.01 and 7.13 g/L so I know I was very close. I am going to add the yeast (Premier Cuvée) so I don’t expect resolution for this dilemma prior to this year’s batch, but hope to gather info in case it happens again in the future. My thought is since I am in the TA range for a red wine, although at the low end, I am going to inoculate without any acid additions. I find this a little strange since in all the prior years I’ve had to push the acid up to get it into the range. The grapes are from St. Helena, California.

Bernie Andreoli
Old Forge, Pennsylvania

I have to hand it to you for doing such complete analysis on your must. If every winemaker were as conscientious as you are, we’d have fewer stuck fermentations, sluggish malolactic fermentation bugs and unhappy yeast beasties. I think you made the right choice to not add any acid to this batch. As you mention, your pre-fermentation TA is already around 0.6-0.70 g/100 mL, which is definitely in the red winemaking sweet spot, especially for Napa Valley Cabs (St. Helena is a small town at the northern end of the Napa Valley). The pH that you report is a little odd though and gives me pause. With a pH that low (3.02) one would expect to see a corresponding TA in the realm of 0.80-1.0 g/100 mL as opposed to the more reasonable, lower levels you saw. My suspicion is that you already pointed out the source of this weird parameter – the fact that you only standardized your pH meter with one of the buffers, the pH 7.0 buffer. When using a pH meter (a great tool for serious winemakers, by the way) it is absolutely critical to standardize (some say “calibrate”) the pH meter before every time you use it and multiple times a day (say, once every four hours) if you are running a lot of samples. pH meters have super-sensitive membranes and measure pH accurately only if they are “shown how” to report their accurate values within a measuring range by exposing them to pH 4.0 and pH 7.0 buffer, in the case of making wine measurements. I suspect that your pH for the current batch was really in the realm of 3.50-3.60 and because you weren’t able to properly standardize the meter it gave you an erroneous reading.

For future picks, however, if you have any control over the matter, I would try to get your Brix a little higher. 2006 was definitely the kind of year where one could pick at slightly lower Brixes and still get good flavor development but 23.72 is pretty low for a full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon. You just won’t get the alcoholic heft, ripe rich flavors and the mouthfeel that many people are looking for. Depending on flavor balance of course (waiting longer if flavors are still green but picking sooner if they’ve developed past that point) I generally try to pick my Napa Cabs around 25.0–26.0 Brix. This ensures that the acid levels have a chance to come down, tannins can ripen and the dreaded green bell pepper aroma (caused by a class of compounds commonly found in Cabs called methoxypyrazines) will disappear from the ripening grapes. You also should get some really nice rich blackcurrant and blackberry flavors and aromas which will yield to coffee, leather and tobacco as the wine ages as long as your wine is kept in oak barrels or you use some kind of non-coopered oak like beans or staves. Sometimes waiting longer to pick does mean that you need to add acid – just don’t add too much. Since judges have mentioned your wines lacked balance and finish, I would suspect that they might be too acidic (based on what I infer about your past acid addition practices) and not ripe enough. Properly ripened Cabernet grapes from the Napa Valley can indeed make some of the best wines in the world.

Again, I applaud you for buying fresh grapes and being willing to tackle the many challenges that grape winemaking can and will present. However, as you gain in experience you will also be able to reap the rewards that employing only premium winegrapes can bring.