Not Just Blending In
It was years ago I might have even been working in a different state at the time when this happened: I was helping a customer pick out a selection of wines, making recommendations for stuff she hadn't tried that she might like. She seemed to get more excited with each bottle that went into her cart (It's one of the best things about selling wine for a living, sharing your excitement for a wine and watching other people get excited with you). Everything was going great, until she asked for some Australian shiraz, and I reached for the Pillar Box Red.
I explained that it is a red blend of shiraz, cabernet and merlot, and that's it's huge and fruity and jammy and a seriously amazing value for around ten bucks (since then, it has crept up to $11.99, and still a great value). I told her that Robert Parker had just given the Pillar Box 90 points (every vintage since has received either 90 or 91 points from The Wine Advocate). And that I, too, gave it my personal seal of approval.
And she sort of crinkled her nose a little, and said she'd like to stick with just shiraz, please. She said she didn't think she'd like blends. So we went and looked at some Aussie shiraz, which was fine.
The whole situation stuck with me mainly because it was a lesson in customer service the customer really is always right, and you have to give them what they want, despite your personal tastes. But it has also stuck with me because ever since, I have wondered: Do a lot of people avoid blends? Do they really lack the cache carried by a varietal label?
It's not a secret that some of the most prestigious and classic wine in the world are blends. Bordeaux, Chianti, Rioja, Champagne, Chateauneuf du Pape, Port these are all traditionally blended wines, and have been for centuries. In fact, most wine is blended, at least a little. The bottles in that very customer's cart, the bottles labeled cabernet sauvignon and shiraz have other grapes blended in. In California, for example, a wine is allowed to be labeled as a varietal if it is composed of at least 75% of that grape, meaning there's a lot of wiggle room in the winemaking process. It's common for winemakers to slip in a touch of merlot or syrah into a cab to fill it out, or to add a bit of cab into a zin to toughen it up. Plus, blended wines are a great way for winemakers to express themselves. Unrestricted by the expectations held for a varietal bottling, they can make the wines they dream of.
We're always tasting red blends around here. One that recently caught my eye is the 2005 St Francis Red a kitchen-sink style blend (along with merlot, cab, syrah and zin, it has 6 % mixed blacks, including cabernet franc, grenache, alicante, and malbec). You might recognize the eye-catching red splatter labels; each bottle in the case comes with a different pattern. We tasted this wine in a lineup with wines ten times its price, yet it managed to hold its own. Along with the cherry, plum and rhubarb fruit, it has a streak of green bell pepper, and is rounded out with a touch of cocoa from oak. The St Francis Red just took a price drop it used to sell for almost $15 a bottle, but now Binny's is offering it for $8.99. This is highly recommended as an everyday red that's quite a value.
If you're looking for something bigger with more restraint and elegance, be sure to check out these traditional Bordeaux-style blends (blended from cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot, and malbec): The 2006 Girard Artistry is well worth the $29.99 price tag, showing big plum, vanilla and cocoa on the nose, plush and spicy on the palate with notes of deep black raspberry and very tight, very drying tannins on the finish. Also a good value is Napanook, from Christian Mouiex's Dominus Estate (Napanook is less than a third the price of it's bigger brother). The 2006 Napanook is 87% Cabernet and shows it, with the powerful sort of elegance that you'd expect from a cabernet, only fleshed out with more plush plum, and a big finish with great tannins. Binny's has the 2006 Napanook for $39.99.
And for something a little different, check out the 2007 Lewis Alec's Blend. This one is 70% syrah, and it also shows it. This is a plush, fat, modern wine with a thick, heavy, almost gooey texture. The oak comes across less like cocoa and more like milk chocolate, the plummy fruit is heavy like fruit preserves. My handwritten notes have the words plush and incredible. This one, it's good. I went back and tasted it a second time. Don't expect elegance, though, it's modern-styled delight, and it's awesome for $44.99.
I realize that some of these $30-$45 blends might seem expensive, but they are great values as they compare to much more expensive wines. They easily deliver in the same league as some of those blue-clip Napa reds that you can only find locked up behind glass, and at a fraction of the price.
By the way, you should totally check out the Pillar Box Red.