The Art of Blending

Blending a wine has become a Science that requires patience, time and sometimes luck, especially when the portion of wine in a blend appears so insignificantly small in proportion to the rest of its’ overall volume.

Why do Winemakers blend different grapes to make a wine?  Sometimes blending occurs for practical purposes to lengthen the volume of a wine or simply to utilize any leftover grapes.  Or as often is the case, the intention to blend is to create a more complex expression and to enhance the overall experience.

Think of the wine blending process as a painter’s brush stroke on a canvass.  Each brush stroke and blending of subtle paint colours changes the look and feeling of what we are perceiving.    

As we have learned over the years, even tiny percentages can make a noticeable difference, sometimes in surprising ways.   As an example, adding 1% of a grape varietal may provide a wine a floral burst of aroma or conversely by adding 1 % of a grape varietal may overwhelm and detract it negatively.  

A Fortunate Accident

Sometimes a small amount of wine makes it into a blend out of pure luck. In certain vintage years, some vineyards (or grape varieties) may ripen too early primarily due to climate or other factors. Sometimes when this occurs, this wine is blended into a tank of another wine and then kept separately during fermentation and barrel ageing.   In several examples that have been documented, a great surprise is discovered that noticeably changed the wine in a positive way. As a result, in such ‘fortunate accidents’, a wine will be blended with the new found recipe moving forward.

The careful consideration of the addition of a wine (in any percentage of volume) will change the aroma and mouth perception.  A touch here and there will add length to the finish or too much can dilute the characteristics of a varietal.  Even a smidge will add some intrigue, complexity and nuance to a blend.  There is a lot for a Winemaker to contemplate.  Since the same grape planted in two different sites can show distinctive characteristics that offer unique attributes to a wine. The location of vineyard, its’ microclimate and soil type are main contributors to defining distinct grape varietal characteristics and is also something that is considered when crafting a blended wine.

A Little Goes a Long Way

At J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines, the winemaking team develops their famous Hilltop Cabernet Sauvignon by blending it in several rounds.  They start with a base of 100% Cabernet Sauvignon that is concentrated but not overly tannic. Round two introduces several grapes which strive to be minor players.

They usually add 5% or 10% Malbec in a trial blend as a rough starting point, but almost always need to dial it back.  J. Lohr Vineyards likes the softness that Malbec brings to the palate, but caution that the floral and red fruit aromas can be very overt.

 After that percentage has been perfected, their team moves on to Petit Verdot Trial and error over the years has resulted in a go-to formula of two to three parts Petit Verdot for every part of Malbec. Cabernet Franc and Merlot are also on standby if required.

The assembled blend is barrel-rested and racked once or twice, then revisited. Though Cabernet Franc may be added for freshness or Malbec for juiciness, adjustments this late in the game are always very small. For the 2021 Vintage, they added 3% Petit Verdot and 1% Malbec, which the team refers to as “the friendly blender’’.

J. Lohr Vineyards values Malbec for its plush mouthfeel, low tannin concentration, red fruit and hibiscus aromatics. A little does go a long way—too much Malbec and the wine will taste like a fun red blend instead of Cabernet Sauvignon.

The big takeaway on wine blending? Let us not be so dismissive the next time we see that a blend contains 1% of any given grape varietal. Even a small amount of wine can have an immense impact when properly incorporated.

As for the J. Lohr Hilltop Cabernet Sauvignon, please check it out for yourself:

SHOP: J. Lohr Hilltop Cabernet Sauvignon