Here in the United States we are on a first-name basis with our wine grapes. The majority of casual wine drinkers understand what “Merlot”, “Moscato”, and “Cabernet” mean. Nowadays “Pinot” and even “Riesling” are familiar pals too. This is largely because the United States and other New World regions label their wines by varietal rather than geographic area. Wine writer and merchant Frank Schoonmaker is credited with making the successful push for variety over geography in mid-20th century California. Robert Mondavi’s brilliant marketing skills made it a pandemic practice and now it’s a fact of the New World. What worked in Europe for ages just didn’t hold sway in the United States. But things don’t ever stay static, especially in wine. Just ask the Ancient Romans who poured their wine from amphorae!
Blends have hit the wine scene in a big way. This news is not new. Blends have arrived and are here to stay. I am not speaking about traditional blends associated with geographic areas (i.e. Bordeaux, Chianti, etc.). The blends about which I speak may use traditional blends as a guide, but not as a rule. When it comes to non-traditional blends, rule breaking is preferred.
Over the past few decades we’ve exalted chefs as creative masters who express artistic craft and skill through food. Celebrity chefs are loved like rock stars. Adoring fans clamor for signed copies of famous chefs’ autobiographies as well as their cookbooks. Now the same is true for winemakers. The time, patience and skill demanded from a winemaker rival that of a chef. The winemaker is always at work even while vines are dormant and wine is aging in barrel. The waiting and the tending is careful and long. There’s no other process like it in the world and I am relieved to see winemakers getting the credit they are due. Creatively talented winemakers made the non-traditional blend movement a reality.
When it comes to wine it’s not always about how close we are to the vineyard (unless we are lucky enough to be in wine country), but rather the wine’s unique story. The story of a non-traditional blend helps us to feel like insiders, privy to our winemaker’s secret formula for success. The story is different every time. Winemakers can have many different reasons for creating a particular blend, or no reason at all. Sometimes the inherent characteristics of one grape complement those of another grape. Other times over- and under-ripe grapes of different varietals are combined to achieve balance. Then there’s blind intuition; something ineffable which cannot be explained in words — only through taste.
I do not mean to insinuate that the rise of non-traditional blends precedes the end of varietal wine. Rather a new landscape has come to light. “Red blend”, “white blend”, or just “blend” is more inclusive to the casual wine drinker and does not require any additional wine study unless desired. The more people we get started on wine the more friends we will have. See below for a list of my favorite non-traditional blends from New World producers both large and small.
Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache
Savory and spicy on the nose and quite concentrated with dark black currant and blackberry preserve notes and powerful sweet spice. Richly flavorful and full on the palate, still this is deceptive and seems lighter than it is. Flavors are well developed and complex with dark chocolate and raspberry flavors set against darker black cherry and blackberry fruit, ending with more chocolate and smoke.
Chenin Blanc, Clairette Blanche, Viognier, Semillon
Lightly oaked and lightly floral aromas of white blossom, white peach, green apple and lemon. With a touch of sweet fruit on the approach, this settles into an oaky, herbal and citrus noted blend of lemon, tangerine, honeyed melon and green apple with a wooded finish and tart acidity throughout.
Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah
Savory and fruity aromas of dark baking spice, raspberry and strawberry with notes of blossom, fresh dewy earth and a touch of cherry. Well integrated palate with harmonious red fruit notes of ripe cherry, raspberry and red currant, a bit tart but easy drinking and approachable with soft tannins and a violet, blueberry finish with good balance.
On the nose there’s a hint of earth and light smoke with loads of fresh fruit notes of cherry, strawberry and cranberry with a small earthy whiff of savory and meaty spice. More expressive fruit on the palate, cherry, raspberry and creamy milk chocolate on the mid palate with an herbal almost minty note towards the finish that is glazed with peppery jam and cinnamon spice.
Savory soy sauce and beef stew aromas with intriguing minerality and ripe cherry, mixed berry and baking spice. In the mouth it’s considerably cooler, bringing milk chocolate and zesty spice, a zip of acidity towards the finish and a palate of fruit flavors, mostly raspberry, cherry, blueberry and cranberry. Fruit forward and approachable, with a complexity that adds depth and character.
Smoke and heady spice aromas of black pepper and cinnamon with earthy black cherry and blackberry notes. Hot and zesty and spicy in the mouth, this has bold fruit notes of earthy blackberry, black cherry and good complexities towards the finish with creamy milk chocolate and coffee and a dusty finish.
Spice, potpourri and lemongrass on the nose make for an intriguing blend of aromas with some tangerine and rose petal and a bit of sea spray. Honeyed and floral in the mouth and sweetness bordering on off-dry with peach and clementine notes and a clean finish of apple and lemon.
Sultry, smoky and spicy aromas of savory earth and cracked black pepper with notes of black cherry and blackberry. Zesty mixed berry palate is quite fruity with more red fruit notes of cranberry, cherry and strawberry with an herbal hint of licorice and dark spice, a creamy texture on the finish, and a lively acidity throughout. Easy and approachable with good complexity, structure and length.
Dark black cherry, blackberry, cinnamon, clove and vanilla spice aromas with creamy milk chocolate. Richly textured, broadly structured and commanding on the palate, this starts with black olive and leads directly into dark chocolate, blackberry, black currant and bramble fruit, leading finally into a black pepper and licorice finish that lingers with chocolate mousse and a hint of strawberry.
Oaty clay and ripe cherry aromas with some sweet spice and earth filling the gaps. In the mouth this is simple, pleasant with bright blueberry and cherry notes, some sweet spice and a soft floral finish.
Tannat, Cot, Cabernet Franc
Floral cherry and licorice aromas. Delicate and flavorful on the palate with notes of cranberry, cherry and strawberry, chunky tannins coming through on the mid palate and a finish of medicine and a touch of cream.
Grenache, Tempranillo, Malbec, Mourvedre, Zinfandel
Smoky, red berry and red cherry aromas with a dash of heat and a pop of black pepper spice. Full and robust palate of ripe cherry, strawberry, raspberry and red licorice, this is a touch imbalanced at times but does demonstrate good ripe fruit and a bit of chocolate on the finish.
Barbera, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo
Floral, earthy and dusty aromas with dark, brooding fruit notes of blackberry and black cherry and restrained spice. This is surprisingly juicy and zippy on entry, but finds its character towards the mid palate with more dusty, earthy fruit notes of black cherry, birch bark and a toasty oaken finish that’s drying and has good length, with just a touch of red fruit kissing the tail end.
Syrah, Malbec, Petit Verdot
Dry and dusty earth notes on the nose mask the fruit but after a few shakes they open, showing ripe strawberry and raspberry notes. The palate is all fruit on the attack, with blueberry, cranberry, strawberry and raspberry rushing in followed by juicy acidity, hot spice and earthy licorice and eucalyptus notes following towards the finish with more oaken spice and wooded smoke.
Quite aromatic with white grape, soft melon and floral blossom aromas. Has a bit of the creamy emollience of a Viognier with the pleasant fruitiness and easygoing creamy texture of the Chenin Blanc, showing good peach, melon and lemon notes through the midpalate, a zesty acidity and focused tart grapefruit and wild flowers on the finish.
Light melon and peach aromas with hints of white blossom. Bursting with fruit and a sweetness profile that borders on off-dry, this is candied and juicy with more peach and melon, finishing with a touch of spice.
Merlot, Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon
Sweet molasses and maple syrup aromas with ripe cherry and strawberry fruit on the nose. Dry and sticky in the mouth, this carries an herbal backbone throughout with tarry minerality, loamy earth and good structure. Fruit flavors are darker than the palate and carrying blackberry and black cherry along with a dark chocolate and roasted espresso finish.
Sangiovese, Montepulciano, Syrah
Dusty and dry on the nose with strawberry and red currant aromas and a bit of smoke. This is expressive and ebullient on the palate with full acidity, ripe cherry and strawberry notes, sweet spice and a more brooding finish that’s earthy and smoky.
Soft strawberry and cherry aromas with a hint of clay, wild flowers and cinnamon spice. This is expansive and explosive on the palate, very fruity with notes of cherry, strawberry and raspberry set against a bracing acidity that carries a wave of spice with it and leaves structural tannins and notes of blueberry and chocolate in its wake.
Xerl.lo, Macabeu, Parellada
Nutty almond and toasted rye bread aromas. On the palate this is nuanced and zesty with toast and fruit flavors that are very well developed with creamy buttered toast, green apple and lemon, buoyant acidity and a finish that’s tart and fresh with good length.
Garnacha, Tempranillo, Graciano
Dusty, earthy and smoky with a strong tendril of red fruit pushing out through the minerality, mostly strawberry and raspberry with some molasses and fresh spice. The palate continues the trend of dusty, meaty, earthy salinity warring with bright red fruit notes of strawberry, cranberry and cherry, finishing in a harmonious end that’s even a bit herbal.
By: Mark Angelillo