Wine blends can bring out the best in grapes

Taking my turn hosting dinner for my all-male amateur cooking club recently, I finally worked up the courage to attempt the Boeuf Bourgogne recipe from legendary chef Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

It involved 19 ingredients, 16 steps and two days’ work, but it was, I blush to confess, superb. Rich, complex, assertive, savory, silky — I could go on.

Wine is like that.

Winemakers lucky enough to have a free hand say they live for the time the grapes are all harvested, the wines are in the bottle, the snow is on the ground and they can sit around indulging in the joy of tinkering. Seeking the perfect blend.

A balance of heft and elegance, of power and finesse, steel fist and velvet glove. A pinch of this, soupçon of that. Everyone in the pool. The more grapes the better.

Assuming it works.

There are tasting notes here for wines that contain as many as seven grape varieties. It’s counterintuitive, but adding just 1 percent of a new grape to a blend can make a difference. That tiny dab of succulent semillon grapes can add detectable richness to an otherwise tart and ungenerous sauvignon blanc.

American winemakers are free to use just about any grapes they want in their wines. The only rule: A wine can’t call itself by a varietal grape name such as “cabernet sauvignon” unless it has at least 75 percent of that variety in its blend. Avalon winery’s cab, for example, is 76 percent cabernet sauvignon with the rest syrah, zinfandel and merlot.

Rules are more restrictive in France. That country’s famous red Bordeaux must contain at least two of the following grapes: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petite verdot and malbec. And no alien grapes such as, shudder, zinfandel or barbera.

U.S. winemakers these days are taking ever more advantage of their freedom to use any grape.

Some Yankee winemakers have opted to mimic the grape blend of Bordeaux. They have joined a group called The Meritage Alliance, with members in 29 states. They agree to use two or more of the Bordeaux grapes, with no more than 90 percent from a single grape.

(Incidentally, the word “meritage” gets an English pronunciation, not a French one. So it’s not “meri-TAHGE.” Rather, it rhymes with “heritage.” You can probably win a bar bet with that.)

Franciscan Estate’s Magnificat red wine blend from Napa Valley is an example, made of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit verdot, malbec and cabernet franc — all Bordeaux grapes.

But most U.S. winemakers use their freedom to create blends seldom heard of until recently, and they’re expanding those choices every year.

For example, Freelance Wines of Lodi, California, created a hearty 2011 Coup de Grace red blend using zinfandel, petite sirah, petit verdot and cabernet franc. Apothic Wines blends two grapes seldom otherwise seen in each others’ company — petite sirah and pinot noir.

Some of the unusual blends are white wines. Murrieta’s Well Winery in California’s Livermore Valley makes a rich, complex white called The Whip from semillon, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, orange muscat, viognier, gewürztraminer and white riesling. The winery also makes a red blend called The Whip, of petite sirah, cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot, malbec and merlot.

So as winter appears in the distance, picture those enthusiastic winemakers happily anticipating the time when they can turn their wildest dreams into reality.

It must be fun to be a winemaker.

Highly recommended

▪ 2013 Head High Wines Red Blend, North Coast (36 percent malbec, 20 percent merlot, 20 percent cabernet sauvignon, 13 percent zinfandel, 11 percent grenache): aromas and flavors of red raspberries and blueberries, cloves and earth; $30.

▪ 2013 The Whip White Blend by Murrieta’s Well Winery, Livermore Valley (28 percent Semillon, 24 percent chardonnay, 14 percent sauvignon blanc, 11 percent orange muscat, 11 percent viognier, 11 percent gewürztraminer, 1 percent white riesling): big, opulent, rich, complex and intensely fruity, with flavors of apricots, lemons and melons; $20.

▪ 2012 Franciscan Estate Magnificat red blend, Napa Valley (73 percent cabernet sauvignon, 19 percent merlot, 3 percent petit verdot, 3 percent malbec, 2 percent cabernet franc): aromas and flavors of black cherries and pumpkin pie spices, full-bodied, smooth, full, ripe tannin, long finish; $50.


▪ 2012 Avalon CAB Cabernet Sauvignon, California (76 percent cabernet sauvignon, 13 percent syrah, 7 percent zinfandel, 4 percent merlot): rich and mellow, with black plum and cinnamon flavors, smooth finish; $13.

▪ 2012 Freelance Winery Coup de Grace red blend, Lodi, California (64 percent zinfandel, 19 percent petite sirah, 11 percent petit verdot, 6 percent cabernet franc): hint of oak, flavors of red raspberry and anise, spice and earth; $28.

▪ 2013 Force of Nature red blend by Rabble Wine Co., Paso Robles, California (67 percent merlot, 11 percent cabernet sauvignon, 11 percent syrah, 11 percent petite sirah): hint of oak, aromas and flavors of black plums and licorice, hearty and smooth; $18.

▪ 2013 Apothic Crush red blend, California (petite sirah, pinot noir): hearty and smooth, with aromas and flavors of red raspberries and brown sugar; $11.

▪ 2012 The Spur red blend by Murrieta’s Well Winery, Livermore Valley (33 perent petite sirah, 31 percent cabernet sauvignon, 29 percent petit verdot, 4 percent malbec, 3 percent merlot): aromas and flavors of black cherries and bittersweet chocolate, smooth tannins, long finish; $22.

▪ 2012 Grandpére Zinfandel by Renwood Winery, Amador County (77.4 percent zinfandel, 10.1 percent petite sirah, 6 percent mourvèdre, 5.4 percent syrah, 1.1 percent marsanne): big and hearty, aromas and flavors of black cherries, citrus and ginger, ripe tannins; $40.

Fred Tasker: