Frank Schoonmaker insisted on varietal wine names in order to help establish an identity for American wine, instead of the horrid bastardizations he saw in California and elsewhere, such as California Burgudy and New York State Champagne. He insisted we call it Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, or sparkling wine. And he was right. He was incredibly influential, and helped turn the tide of American wine forever.
But I think this also had a deleterious effect. American winemakers have chased the varietal wine down the proverbial rabbit hole, to the point we'd rather make a bad Cabernet Franc or Merlot rather than make a good blend. I think this practice has to stop. I think each winemaker, especially in the east, need to start adding one or two red blends to their arsenal - and I am not talking about that sweet crap, as so many do! Make a decen red blend. It will out perform your bestselling red for sure. That's not to say your can't make varietal reds, but your sales will improve and your customers will be happier if you add one or two solid red blends to your lineup!
At EWE 2017 back in March, Richard Leahy assembled a killer panel on red blends. Here was the entry from the program.
EV01 | Crafting Fine Red Blends in Cool Climates
Vinny Aliperti, Peter Becraft, JL Groux and Luke Steele
This in-depth session will feature four speakers from cool climate sites: J.L. Groux of Stratus Vineyards, ON; Luke Steele of Dr. Frank Vineyards, Finger Lakes; Vinny Aliperti of Atwater Vineyards and Peter Becraft of Anthony Road Vineyards, both of Seneca Lake. The first two speakers will pour and discuss a meritage blend, while Becraft will do the same with a cabernet franc/lemberger blend while Aliperti will pour a “big blend” with 43% syrah, 3 red Bordeaux grapes, and lemberger/blaufrankisch. All speakers will include viticultural practices and site circumstances, along with winemaking stylistic goals, processes and managing both from one vintage to the next.
J.L. will specifically address the art of assemblage at Stratus and how this traditional European winemaking technique is applied with a New World twist: assemblage vs. blending; tasting techniques to assemble your own wines; what to avoid; and how to overcome the marketing challenge.
Now, before we start, I have to tell you that I very much admire the work of all four of these winemakers! More so, I think the eastern seaboard needs to strike a better balance between varietals, which are a uniquely American invention, and blends. I am becoming more and more a fan of red blends! Especially in the east, where, like in say, Europe, blends have always been more the norm than not.
In a blend, especially a red blend, one adds hopefully complexity and layers of flavors and aromas to build a bigger, better red. Many varieties, made as single varietal wines, often exhibit their positive and negative natures. The most striking is Cabernet Franc, which will show of it's variety of cherry flavors and pencil shavings and immense dept, as well as it's verdant side, smelling of green grass or even worse, green bell pepper. By blending in say Merlot, or Baco Noir, or any number of vinifera or hybrid grapes, to create more depth and add more complexity. The great-great grandfathers of wine knew that.
Peter Becraft's Anthony Road Cab Franc/Lemberger blend was an excellent example of a blend. A lot of FInger Lakes winemakers growing Lemberger or Blaufrankish (which I prefer) have often blended this highly acidic red with a vinifera red to make a more classic styled table wine. Here, Beecraft has blended 53% Cabernet Franc with 47% Lemberger. The final product exploded with bright and dark ripe cherries and had a lovely balance of acidity and tannin to make a lovely medium-bodied red wine to please almost any palate! Truly, a lovely red!
Atwater Estate Big Blend by Vinnny Aliperti was what we tasted next. This was a revelation!!!!! Originally started off as an affordable red blend, this wine blossomed into one of the best red wines being made in the Finger Lakes today! No ifs, ands, or buts. I wish more New York and New England winemakers would buy a bottle of this and see what I mean. If you like California reds, you will LOVE this wine!
The wine was predominantly Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, with Merlot and Cabernet Franc in strng support, and a dollop of Blaufrankish. This was a big red, with big jammy notes of cherry, stewed strawberries and raspberries, lead the attack, with soft tannins and lovely balance and complexity. Every time you sip this beautiful red wine, you get a little something more out of it. An amazing wine. Vinny and Atwater have a true industry leader on their hands!
Luke Steele presented the Dr. Konstantin Frank Meritage 2012. This wine is a blend of predominantly cabernet sauvignon and merlot with about 25% cabernet franc. Individual parcels of each variety were fermented in open top fermenters with an extended post ferment maceration on skins. The wines were then aged in French oak barriques for 15 months. The best barrels from each parcel were selected and blended. The wine comes in at 13.5% ABV.
Lots of big black cherry and black cassis run through this glass. Big fruit, big acid, and big tannin. It was lovely as a 2012 fresh out of the bottle, but it's also the kind of wine that will age for the next ten years in your cellar. If you are a fan of older Bordeaux, park a case of this in your cellar for the next five eyars, and it will begin to soften and mature like few other eastern reds will. BTW, make no mistake about it, if you have a nicely charred steak, you better break this puppy out ASAP!
If there is a list of the 7 wonders of the modern world, JL Groux better be on the list - otherwise throw it away! JL Groux is the winemaker at Stratus. I have written about stratus before. In my humble opinion, there is no question, that Stratus is one of the most impressive wines made in North America. No matter what region you put it in, it would rank as one of the best wines from that region (all of California included!).
Groux has blended the classic meritage, taking all five of the major noble grapes, and created something immensely impressive. Big helpings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc are bolstered by dollops of Petite Verdot and Malbec. And then he through in a dash of Tannat!
JL Groux has crafted an incredible wine. Coming in at a solid 13.8% alcohol, this wine had fruit and structure in spades! Big dark fruit like plumbs, dark cherries, blackberries, cassis, moocha, vanilla, and orange pekoe tea, this wine was something wholly exceptional! Utter proof, that in cold weather climates, a great blend is a great blend!
If you are a consumer looking for great red blends in the northeast start here. There are others I could mention, but I think that will be a separate post! If you are a winemaker, start working on a blend now!!!!!! Great stuff from these four incredible winemakers and houses! Enjoy!