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Understanding Blending

By Alex Russell on March 20, 2016 in Food

Photo: Alex Russell Instagram @OzWineGuy

Photo: Alex Russell Instagram @OzWineGuy

A lot of people tell me that they prefer wines made from a single grape to wines that are blends, for example a Shiraz versus a Grenache Shiraz Mourvedre blend. Blending is typically done because the ‘whole’ that results is greater than the sum of its parts. But did you know that winemakers make other blending decisions that aren’t quite as obvious, at least not on the wine label?

A great example of this is ‘The Story’ wines. Each year they release a few single vineyard Shirazes. All are from the Grampians region, but each vineyard has its own character that is celebrated in each wine. When the grapes come in from each individual vineyard they are crushed and put into barrel to ferment separately. The barrels from any one vineyard can end up looking quite different to each other. When it comes time to bottle, the winemaker must decide which barrels go together well and which ones don’t quite fit.

These ‘different’ barrels usually don’t get wasted. Sometimes they are exceptional and will be released as an even better wine. Sometimes they are still great, but don’t quite mesh with the rest from that same vineyard, but might blend really well with barrels from other vineyards. Sometimes the quality of one barrel isn’t quite up to the standard required.
When you blend barrels from a number of vineyards, you’ll often lose some of the individual vineyard characteristics, but sometimes that’s not what you’re after. This blending of barrels can result in sensational wines. For example, winemaker Alex Head describes the ‘Head Red’ Shiraz as a ‘barrel cull’ from Barossa vineyards, but most of you who have tried it would have loved it.

Another example is Andrew Thomas, who is a Shiraz and Semillon specialist. In 2011 he had a few barrels that didn’t quite make the cut for his best Shiraz, and he had a few barrels for another wine that didn’t quite suit the style. They were still lovely, though, and they just so happened to go together very nicely, so a new wine was born. This is the ‘Elenay’ Shiraz, which sounds romantic until you find out that ‘Elenay’ translates to ‘LNA’, which stands for ‘Lips and Arseholes’, an old butchers’ reference. It’s a great wine, 96 Halliday points on the current release, in fact.

When it comes to making great blended wines, sometimes it’s about blending grapes, sometimes it’s about blending barrels from the same vineyard, and sometimes it’s about blending barrels from different vineyards. Further still, sometimes it’s about blending barrels from completely different regions, or even different states. The grapes that go into Penfold’s Grange don’t come from one vineyard, or even one region.

All of this blending is done by trial and error, and by flavour alone. And it’s not easy. If you ever want to try, though, blending workshops are sometimes held at various events – look out for them – and if you travel to wine regions, some wineries will let you try blending yourself, too. Penfold’s does, and I think Wynn’s offers the opportunity to some members. It’s amazing how different a wine can be with just a slight change in the proportions of each ingredient.