One often finds a number of blended wines in Texas tasting rooms these days, and you may have wondered why that is the case. There are probably many reasons, but three key ones come to mind: 1) winemakers can often enhance the quality and flavor of a wine by making blends, 2) Texas grape growers are still experimenting with different varieties in their vineyards to find which work best, and 3) having multiple grape varieties that adapt and react differently to the highly variable Texas weather conditions can often be extremely beneficial.
Assessing wine aromas, flavors, and structure is a skill that winemakers work hard to develop. From tasting grapes in the vineyard in order to make harvest decisions, to following aroma and flavor development through the fermentation process, and finally, to tasting various cuvées through selected aging regimens, winemakers become adept at managing their starting materials to put the best possible product into the bottle for sale to customers. So, if the addition of Roussanne to Viognier, or Mourvèdre to Tempranillo makes a better wine, then they will go for it.
Some of the world’s greatest wines are blends. The famous red wines of Bordeaux are almost always blends of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, often with additions of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. The rich and powerful reds of Châteauneuf-du-Pape from France’s Rhône Valley are most often blends of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre. Such blends made in other wine regions, including Texas, are often labeled GSM’s. Even the spicy, delicious Spanish Tempranillos from Rioja often contain portions of supporting grapes like Graciano, Carignan, or Grenache. If the goal is to make the best Texas wines possible, then blending should be an important winemaking strategy.
One side note: In most of the U.S., including Texas, a wine needs to be only 75% of a single grape varietal to be labeled as such. A Texas Tempranillo can be anywhere from 75-100% Tempranillo. Only if the label provides information as to the wine’s composition will you know whether the wine is a blend or straight varietal.
Most Texas grape growers experimented with multiple grape varieties to determine which would grow and prosper in their vineyards. Often only small plots of each variety were planted, so blends of several varieties became an efficient approach to produce enough wine for sale to customers. As Texas growers have focused on which varieties work best in the soil types and climate conditions of their vineyards, the number of varieties may have decreased. But, some valuable lessons were learned from those earlier blending experiments—namely that blends can be delicious and profitable in the Texas wine market.
The vagaries of Texas weather provide a powerful incentive to grow multiple varieties and produce/market blended wines as part of a winery’s portfolio. In Bordeaux, Merlot ripens earlier and better in cooler, wetter vintages than does Cabernet Sauvignon. So, in cooler vintages, the amount of Merlot in the blend may increase, while in hot vintages, the percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon will increase. This same pattern works in the French Rhône Valley and Spain’s Rioja region, as different varieties add strength and positive flavors to blends depending on the vintage’s weather conditions. In Texas, a key variable is whether a grape variety is more or less susceptible to our far-too-often spring frost and hail episodes. The ability to source multiple varieties can provide a form of “weather insurance in the vineyard.” It is important for growers, winemakers, and customers to take advantage of “weather insurance in the vineyard” by having multiple grape options available to create a consistent supply of quality Texas blended wines.
A contribution from Carl Hudson, Ph.D. and former assistant winemaker, currently the Wine Educator for 4.0 Cellars in Fredericksburg, Texas.