When encountering a wine list, you’ll often see a list of grapes: Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc. But sometimes you’ll also see names — wines christened by the winemakers with catchy monikers. Often (but not always) those wines are blends, made by mixing two or more distinct grape varietals.
“Blending is the way that winemakers show their style,” says Virginia Mitchell of Galer Estate Winery & Vineyard. “I think if you go to a winery and you don’t taste the blends, you’re kind of missing out on what the winemaker did.”
As Mitchell implies, blends are a way for winemakers to spread their wings. They can also be a way to turn a lackluster harvest into something special. And they can be an avenue for exposing customers to unfamiliar grapes.
After talking to a few winemakers about their blending philosophies, we realized that the strategies and motivations behind producing blends are as diverse as the resulting wines. Below are some of the things we learned — a “how” and “why” of blended wines.
Stick to the Recipe
Some winemakers produce the same blends every year, with a set percentage of specific grapes. That’s the case at Stone Barn Cellars Winery, which is housed in a 200-year-old barn in Chester County.
“Winemaking is nothing more than cooking,” explains owner Benjamin Morrison, who shares winemaking duties with his wife Suzanne. “What you’re just trying to do is make something that you would like to drink.”
“You say those grape names to people, and they’re like, ‘What??’” says Morrison. “But they all grow really well in Pennsylvania. So now we’ve got an original wine made with Noiret [they sell this varietal wine under the name ‘Bonfire’]. It’s smokey and peppery — and then Baco Noir and Corot Noir add a little leather, a little earth to it. And now you’ve got something that’s really unique.”
Though they stick to the same ratio every year, the wine still changes with the vintage. Stone Barn doesn’t grow their own fruit, instead purchasing from local growers. Some years, the grapes they buy are sweeter, or fruitier, or more aromatic. The recipe stays the same, but the wine still evolves.
“That’s the beauty of wine — the vintage is the vintage and that’s what you get,” he says. “We’re not a big huge commercial winery that is going to try and make the exact same product year after year.”
Wait for the Grapes
Meanwhile, some winemakers will make new blends or change the recipe of a signature blend from year to year. For example, Galer Estate makes a wine called Huntress Red. Inspired by the classic blends of Bordeaux, Mitchell takes their estate-grown Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, and blends them with grapes purchased from local wineries. That influx of fruit varies year to year — sometimes they get Merlot and Malbec, other years Carmine.
Typically, she ferments each of the grapes separately and then uses her carefully honed olfactory and tasting skills to make decisions.
“I pull samples from all of the barrels,” she explains. “I go through and I smell them all first. I make notes on which ones I like the most — which ones are fuller, which ones are more fruity. And once I have all those notes for the aroma, then I go through and I taste them all. And although that sounds really fun, it’s kind of demanding. You really have to think about what you’re tasting.”
After picking the barrels for her single-varietal wines, she uses the rest for blends. Occasionally, if the grapes are really singing together, she will make a Reserve Blend. And then they almost always produce Huntress Red. (In 2018, a rough vintage forced Mitchell to pivot and employ her estate-grown red grapes in a rosé; the improvisation went on to win awards.) The blend is an approachable, food-friendly wine with notes of pepper and red fruit that patrons go nuts for.
“Though customers think that they’re faithful, Huntress Red does change,” says Mitchell. “It does represent the vintage. If it’s the same blend every year, it’s kind of boring for me. I like to keep things a little more exciting and keep our customers on their toes.”
Sharon Klay of Christian W. Klay Winery in southwestern PA also changes up her recipes year after year, but instead does it in the service of consistency. At their winery, blending began as a necessity — no one had ever planted a commercial vineyard in their region so they initially planted dozens of varieties to see which grapes would thrive. It wasn’t feasible to make single-varietal wines from such small amounts. These days, they’ve narrowed down the number of grapes but still produce their favorite blends.
“I make my decisions based on my tastings once we make the wine,” she says. “With my blends, I always use the same grapes. What I do is I adjust the proportion of it depending on that harvest. Sometimes you need a little more Chambourcin because it was stronger than the Marechal Foch. It’s like blending paint. You want to get to the same end result but sometimes you have to tweak it a little.”
Add Some Oomph
Fun fact: A wine can be labeled as single varietal as long as it is made from at least 75 percent of that grape. This means that winemakers can do a little bit of blending, even if they’re not making a “blend.”
“Let’s say we have a Chardonnay that comes in, and it may not be as floral as we’d like, we’ll add a little bit of another grape that has floral characteristics,” explains Morrison. “We don’t do that a lot, just because we don’t like to manipulate things too much. We’d like to let the grape stand on its own, especially when it’s a single varietal like Chardonnay.”
There is also something called a “field blend” — grapes from a single vineyard are grown, harvested, and fermented together. At Galer, they’ve only planted a small amount of Petit Verdot. If yields are particularly low, Mitchell will do a field blend and put those grapes in with the Cabernet Franc.
“As a winemaker you do have to make decisions on the fly,” she says, “because you don’t know what you’re gonna get.”