Two years ago, at a wine bar’s tasting event, I sat next to a man who described himself as “a proud California Cabernet nutter,” and who drank New World wines almost exclusively. We tasted an Oregon Pinot Noir that he seemed to enjoy, but when the host brought out a bottle of Bordeaux, the man looked puzzled. He asked to see the bottle, turning it over in his hands as if he were looking for something. The host asked what was wrong, and the man said, “I don’t see the wine listed on here. What is it?” The host responded, “It’s Bordeaux.” I could tell the man was getting agitated when he said, “I know that. What’s the grape?”
The man didn’t realize that Old World blends rarely, if ever, name the grape varietal on the label. This story highlights one of the biggest rifts in the wine market today: misunderstandings between New World single-varietals and Old World blends. To find out which is best for your collection, you need to consider your taste, the current market, and its future projections.
What’s the Difference?
Generally, the difference between a single-varietal wine and a blend is that the varietal will have at least 75 percent or more of one specific grape, whereas a blend can be any combination of any number of grapes. In some regions, like Bordeaux or Burgundy, there’s no need to list the blended grapes on the label because seasoned collectors and wine lovers already know which grapes traditionally go into those blends. For instance, Bordeaux has been made with a combination of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot for centuries. This specific blend is meant to highlight the best aspects of each grape, while filling in any missing components. Old World blends are usually consistent in quality because winemakers have the power to change the proportion of grapes used to adjust the flavors.
By contrast, New World wines almost always name the grape varietal on the label, whether it’s a single-varietal or wine blend. That’s because the regions haven’t been making wine long enough yet to have established, traditional blends. To further complicate things, just because one grape varietal is listed on the label doesn’t always mean that it’s the only grape inside of the bottle. In California, a wine labeled as “Cabernet Sauvignon” could also have up to 25 percent of any other grape, depending on whether the winemaker thinks the wine could use more complexity.
Familiarity vs. Refinement
There’s a philosophical battle on the wine market over single-varietals and wine blends. Proponents of single-varietals claim that they are the best representation of terroir because winemakers have done nothing to change the grape’s original flavor profile. They believe that if a grape is grown on the best soil and under the perfect weather conditions, there should be no need for further blending–to blend is to mask fatal flaws in the grapes, and to muddy the distinctiveness of terroir. However, this doesn’t account for“single-varietal” wines that are secretly blends. In this case, collectors might think that they are getting only one stellar varietal, when in actuality, they are getting some help from another grape. In addition, just because a single-varietal tastes superb on its own doesn’t mean it is inherently better than a blend that tastes equally delicious.
The decision between investing in a single-varietal or wine blend depends not on terroir nor winemaking skill, but on whether you prefer the familiar to the experimental. Beginning wine collectors and casual drinkers tend to choose single-varietals over blends because they know exactly what they are getting when they buy a varietal. New World producers have taken advantage of this trend on the market; Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon make up about 36 percent of wine sales in the U.S., whereas red blends make up only about 13 percent.
However, wine critics and seasoned collectors tend to choose more blends because the flavor is well-rounded, the wines can last longer in a cellar, and they have an element of surprise. Jancis Robinson explains, “I must admit that when I am tasting through ranges of wines from an individual producer, I often find myself being far more intrigued and beguiled by blends of different grape varieties than by the same old Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Shiraz/Syrah.”
The Future of New World Wines
Old World winemakers will likely continue to blend their wines according to tradition, but it’s possible we’ll see a change in the way that the New World handles its wines in the next 50 years. Although many wine drinkers prefer the comfort and familiarity of single-varietal vintages now, as New World regions begin to determine which grapes grow best in that particular climate, we might see more traditional blends emerge. In Napa, there’s no traditional blend yet, but it’s clear that Cabernet Sauvignon thrives there. However, whenever Napa does a traditional Bordeaux-style blend, the results are usually more alcohol-heavy and fruit-forward than Bordeaux. To temper this intensity, we might see a brand new Napa blend that uses a grape like Zinfandel to balance the blend’s flavors.
As a collector, you can stay on top of these emerging trends by experimenting more frequently with New World blends. Old World wines have lasted on the market for centuries because they have refined their grape combinations to make elegant wines that aren’t missing any key flavors. New World producers will eventually do the same, and you can be one of the first to find those future classic wines when you think outside of the single-varietal box.
Whether you are starting your high-end wine collection or adding to an established portfolio, Vinfolio is your partner in buying, selling, and professional storage. Contact us today to get access to the world’s best wine.
Image by Geographer – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40838226