THE FINE ART OF BLENDING
"The qualifying feature for the judges is that the wine must display the very best attributes of the variety it is representing."
YOU may have noticed the winner of this year’s Wine of the Year and Cabernet of the Year category was actually a blend of cabernet and shiraz; surprising? Not really, it isn’t the first time a blend has won this particular class – both the 2017 and 2018 winners were cabernet blends.
Peter Simic, Winestate’s Publisher & Editor, explains the magazine’s philosophy behind the inclusion of blends in their WOTY awards. “Some years ago, purely by accident, a Margaret River sauvignon blanc/semillon ended up in the sauvignon blanc line-up,” said Peter. “When the judging panel tasted the wine they thought it was a New Zealand sauvignon blanc. The wine went on to knock the socks off the Kiwis, becoming the outright winner of that class. Out of that came our decision to include blends into the varietal classes providing the largest portion of the wine was of that variety. All our tastings are blind, judges won’t know if the wine they have been presented with is a blend or a straight varietal. The qualifying feature for the judges is that the wine must display the very best attributes of the variety it is representing. Clearly Majella’s 2018 The Musician did exactly that.”
The Chairman of the judging panel was Bill Hardy, 5th generation winemaker of the Hardy Family. “I would not have picked the shiraz in the wine,” said Bill of The Musician. “It was very much cabernet driven exhibiting typical leafy blackberry varietal characteristics. The shiraz gave the wine an extra generosity and softness.”
Bill Hardy has strong views on blending. “Blending is an important feature of wine production in Australia setting us apart from most other wine producing countries – both in the ‘old’ world and the new.” He believes that the complex art of blending requires an exceptional level of skill and experience on the part of the winemaker and that judicious blending, be it with different grape varieties or from different wine regions, can produce a wine with more complexity, structure and balance than one from a single vineyard.
Blending of different grape varieties in winemaking is common practice around the world but blending parcels of wine from totally different wine regions seems to be unique to Australia.
Bill cites the Hardys HRB (Heritage Reserve Bin) Shiraz as an example of regional blending to produce a premium wine. “The HRB is a straight varietal,” said Bill. “And although the backbone of this wine is McLaren Vale shiraz, there can be up to three or four quite different wine regions represented in the wine. The McLaren Vale shiraz produces a wine with depth of body and aromas and flavours of ripe plums, coffee, chocolate and licorice but it is generally considered quite alcoholic, soft in tannin and low in acidity; introduce some Padthaway shiraz and you add reasonable levels of tannin and acid with finer, more lifted raspberry, mint, menthol, and eucalyptus characters. If a Clare Valley or WA’s Frankland River shiraz is included in the blend you get a firm, tight palate structure and the aromas and flavours of cherries, red currants, pepper and spices associated with cooler wine regions. This careful blending produces a perfectly balanced wine with a myriad of complementary aromas and flavours.”
As mentioned earlier, blending of different grape varieties to produce a harmonious wine that is better than its individual parts happens around the world. “Take a typical Bordeaux style blend for example,” said Bill. “It comprises, predominately, of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot. The cabernet sauvignon gives the wine lovely berry characters and a good tannin and acid backbone. The cabernet franc component brings fragrance and delicacy, the merlot – richness and softness and, if necessary, petit verdot is added to tighten up the blend.
“Here in Australia, blends of chardonnay and semillon are successful because the chardonnay provides ripe peach and melon fruit, but can often be a bit soft and ‘flabby’, whilst the semillon contributes delicate citrus fruit and its crisp acidity and finer palate structure provides a perfect foil for the fullness and softness of the chardonnay.
“The blending of shiraz and cabernet sauvignon is exclusively an Australian creation. The cooler, crisper, tighter and firmer structure of cabernet balances out the big, open, soft, warm structure of shiraz with the spicy, red fruit characters of shiraz perfectly complementing the leafy, dark fruit characters of cabernet producing a hedonistic, ‘pot-pourri’ of aromas and flavours!”
Apart from blending to achieve complexity in premium wines Australian winemakers blend to achieve consistency at the ‘everyday’ wine level so consumers can rely on their favourite quaffer always tasting the same, no matter the vintage. “Blending between regions, in particular, helps overcome any inconsistency there might be in the quality or style of these wines,” commented Bill.
Then there is what could be called ‘silent’ blends.
The Australian wine industry is governed by a Labelling Integrity Program that guarantees truth in wine labelling with heavy penalties for wineries not complying with the rules. For a winery to label a wine as being made from a single variety or coming from a particular wine region, at least 85% of that wine must be of the stated variety and/or region. This still allows winemakers a small window of opportunity to ‘tweak’ a wine, if they feel it necessary, by adding up to 15% of another grape variety or wine from a different region without having to stipulate it on the label.
There is a considerable difference in attitude toward blending in Australia compared with Europe where the thinking is that the wine in the bottle should reflect where the grapes were grown (the terroir) and not the grape varieties used. In most European countries blending of wines from completely different regions, except for the most basic table wines, is not permitted, by wine law. “Regional blending is something European winemakers normally associate with low quality wine and generally consider it a technique used to hide the deficiencies in the components of the blend,” said Bill.
“Champagne is the exception. To achieve consistency of quality and style in their flagship non-vintage Champagnes, the Champenois blend across three varieties, four subregions and several vintages.”
The winner for 2020 Winestate Wine of the Year is a great example of a harmoniously blended wine. According to Brian “Prof” Lynn from Majella, the Musician is their biggest seller and is “an exceptional wine at an exceptional price” and given this year’s result – it’s not hard to see why.