To Blend or Not to Blend…

Written by
Michael Jappy
February 16, 2017
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The Australian wine landscape wouldn’t be what it was today if it wasn’t for the genius of one winemaker in particular. Max Schubert, head winemaker of Penfolds in the 1950s, defied orders from his employers and secretly set about creating a table wine that could rival those being produced in the old world.

The now iconic ‘Grange’ set the bar in terms of the production of table wines in Australia and to this day remains at the top of the vinous tree.

The blueprint for Schubert and his Grange project was to create a wine that truly represented the best of what the regions’ vineyards could produce. Grapes were sourced from a number of sites around the Barossa Valley and other surrounding areas. Although predominantly made from Shiraz, a small percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon was added to the blend for extra stuffing and complexity. The success of Grange and its heady mix of grapes coming from a number of regions, varieties vineyards set the path for many others to follow suit, and the Australian wine scene flourished as producers took the Grange recipe and set about taking on the established wines of Europe.

The Shiraz/Cabernet blend was new to the world, and the boom in Aussie production and consumption saw big wineries creep up and dominate the wine horizon as the good times rolled. The UK in particular fell in love with the multi-regional, multi varietal blends being produced in the land down under. And honestly, what wasn’t to like? By taking the best of what was on offer from vast regions, winemakers were able to craft wines that were so textbook that they titillated the palate with their luscious fruit and friskiness that all made for terrific drinking.

However, as the wine market has evolved, so too has the palate of the humble wine drinker. More and more people have started to move away from wines blended from vast areas and, as much as there has been a movement towards eating local produce in the food world, consumers now seek out wines that are from a specific variety, from a specific vineyard, and that are produced to reflect the bit of dirt that the grapes are grown in. We’ve seen producers making wines from single vineyards, from single varietals, and to some extent from single parcels within single vineyards! These expressions of single sites tend to produce wines that are more individual in character; wines that, rather than having been made in the winery, are made in the vineyard and express the individual characters of the vineyard in which they are grown (what the French refer to this as Terroir).

So, back to the question - to blend or not to blend? It’s a tricky one. Some of the greatest wines in the world are made from a blend of varieties. Bordeaux is a great example of just how successful blending varieties can be (so too is Grange!). On the other hand, wines sourced from single vineyards and single varieties can tease the palate with their unique personality, as the great wines of Burgundy so expertly showcase. So the conclusion is… well, there isn’t one really. The only way for you to make up your mind if you enjoy blends or not is to taste as much good wine made by as many good producers as possible.

Bringing things closer to home, it’s difficult to look past the Barossa Valley when searching out warming, spicy Grenache. The iconic Yalumba are revered for producing an array of exciting wines and their Bush Vine Grenache is a textbook example of what old bush vine Grenache should look like. Think of a heady mix of plum, cherry, earth and spice. Uplifting and vibrant, for value for money you can’t look past this silky number.

A great place to start would be by exploring the wines produced by Oakridge in the Yarra Valley. The ‘Over the Shoulder’ series sees head winemaker Dave Bicknell blend wines from a number of sites, and the wines are stunning bang for your buck. The local Vineyard Series (and especially the 864s) see the team select individual vineyards that show particular characteristics that differ with each vintage. They are stunning wines from a truly brilliant producer that showcase both variety and region to a T. So what are your favourite blends?