“I only drink Pinot Noir thank you very much,” my uncle said with a certain finality that left no room for debate.
I was stunned, why would this otherwise curious person limit himself to one grape?
“I don’t want to be drinking something that isn’t good enough to express itself, wine shouldn’t be blends, blends are just a way for wineries to cut down their margins.”
A-ha. Gotcha only half right there Uncle Rich, blends are more than that.
At Firstleaf we source all kinds of wine, including blends. To completely write off blends means that you’ll miss out on some of the best wines on Earth! Can you imagine never wanting to taste a first growth Bordeaux, the world renowned Super Tuscan, or a cult-California blend!? These blends are widely considered to be some of the best wines on earth. Why are these blends prized so highly?
Short answer: because they taste like they are from somewhere.
Let’s take a step back and explore why and how and why we started blending.
Vitis Vinifera - Every Grape You Love
Almost every wine you will drink will be made with grapes belonging to the species Vitis Vinifera. It is the wine grape.
Thousands of years ago our ancestors were just starting to explore the abundant wildlife outside of the Fertile Crescent. These farmers and foragers were taking the first steps to understanding how our world works. They had just domesticated dogs and cattle, and now it was time to turn their efforts to the plant kingdom.
They changed ancient wheat, rye, and gourds in ways that made cultivation and life easier—a decision that still influences our diet today. Grapes were the same, and the Vitis Vinifera grapes dominated all other species. Over time seeds became narrower, the grape skins became thicker, and the poorer varieties died out leaving the farmers with more robust and healthy grapes for winemaking.
The farmers gathered whatever grapes were available and threw them into clay pots, blending the varieties together and burying them for six months at a time to ferment. When the wine was unearthed it was time for celebrating.
Barrels and Bottles
While they waited on the grapes to ferment they devised ways to store their new-found and highly perishable liquid gold. From clay pots to stone containers, glass bottles, and barrels each technological development added a new chapter on how wine should be made and moved.
Monks - A More Thorough Approach
After the fall of Rome the “light” of culture was all but snuffed and the world descended into the period known as the Dark Ages. The life of the mind suffered, but there were still a few places of learning and discussion and intentional agriculture.
Monasteries of the Dark and Middle Ages kept the winemaking knowledge of the Romans alive. They were some of the first to explore aspects of winemaking we still benefit from today, including the intentional practice of blending wine.
The Benedictine and Cistercian Orders had great abbeys in Burgundy and began systematically planting, vinifying, and aging their wines. In Northern France they began exploring site specific wines, keeping journals with what was planted where, when it was harvested, and how it was finished. Thanks to these nameless monks, we have another step forward in producing great wines.
The Dawn of a New Era
By then end middle ages things started to brighten and the gloom lifted…an age of exploration dawned. Wine regions, especially in France, were mapped and thriving with their own complex rules on what could be grown and what could be blended.
The millennia of experimenting had paid off, the farmers knew exactly what to grow and where to grow it. Winemakers blended the grapes that had been cultivated in specific vineyards. The wines were balanced, with each grape playing an important part in building the final character of the wine. The classics were born.
As people circled the globe they brought more than food and water. They took wine, for instance, and grapes! They began planting in places that had never seen grape cultivation before, and through trial and error figured out what worked best.
Once they knew, they went all in on that grape to maximize the yield and in doing so invented our single varietal wines. The rules had been thrown out and results were mixed, some places made fantastic wine and some places didn’t.
To Blend or Not to Blend
Today, deciding what type of wine to make comes down to philosophy. What does it mean for a wine to express place? What grapes grow best where you have your vineyards? What story is your wine trying to tell? Does it want to tell you about the weather and the soils, and how the entire ecosystem works together to produce a bottle?
100% Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa can be transcendent, but in other parts of the world the soils and the climate don’t allow the Cabernet to flourish in the same way—to find balance it needs to be blended.
There’s no right or wrong way to make a wine in the same way there is no right or wrong way to enjoy a wine. At Firstleaf we simply seek out great wine in whatever form we find it.
Back to my uncle…
“Here, taste a little bit of this Champagne, it’s got Pinot Noir in it.”
He drank the wine, and even looked like he enjoyed it.
Ever since I’ve noticed him slowly adding in variety to wine selection. A California blend here, a Super Tuscan there…even some blended Champagne now that he knows it’s made with a few red grapes. Maybe it’s just me, but he seems happier.
If you want to learn more about specific grapes, or the wider history of wine our experts highly recommend a few books:
Oz Clarke's book gives an in-depth look at hundreds of varietals, how and where they are grown, and what they should taste like.
If you have a burning question Jancis Robinson has almost certainly answered it somewhere in this book’s 850 pages.
Another Oz Clarke book, this is a light, fun history of wine. Looking at the stories that have shaped winemaking over the past 6,000 years bottle by bottle.