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posted: 11/6/2013 5:26 AM

Good wine: American winemakers blending grapes, stirring up sales

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  • Ca' Momi Rosso di Napa

    Ca' Momi Rosso di Napa


In the 1970s, a new word entered wine's active vocabulary. The word: varietal. We learned it meant a wine made from primarily one grape variety.

It was the vinous equivalent of, "and now for something completely different!"

For millennia, wines were blends of grapes. Winemakers weren't fussy; they used whatever grapes survived the heat, frost, slurry, rock, pelting rain or searing drought of their growing region. After all, who was rich enough, inexperienced or foolhardy enough to bank a family's annual income on only one crop?

Americans, that's who!

California's ideal climate, vast acreage and seemingly vast prosperity lured winegrowers to challenge tradition. Joe Heitz of Napa's Heitz Cellars said it best, "I grow the best Cabernet Sauvignon in the world. Why should I blend it with anything else?"

Americans responded to the uncomplicated information of varietal labeling and the world followed. Even France, the wellspring of regional labeling, recently allowed grape varieties to be printed on back and even front labels. Sacre bleu!

But a few things have changed since the 1970s.

Family-owned wineries and wines of unique character have given way to multinational corporations and brands requiring consistent character. (Would you want the flavors of your favorite soda pop to change every year?) Blends can be adjusted for consistency.

Blends can also adjust to satisfy current tastes. Market favorites including Apothic, Charles Smith Velvet Devil and Menage a Trois win today's fans with chewy texture and sweetish fruit, all at less than $10.

Today, red blends are wine's sales engines, with a nearly 100 percent growth from 2012 to 2013.

Here is some background to make sense of traditional and new wave blends:

Cuvée (koo-VAY): French meaning 'blend.' With no legal definition, cuvee may mean a blend of grapes, of fermenting or aging containers. In sparkling wine terminology, cuvee implies special attributes, such as Champagne Pol Roger "Cuvee Winston Churchill" with bold, smoky flavors and boundless energy that promises long life (about $280.)

Meritage: Rhymes with "heritage." A blend based on permitted grapes of Bordeaux, France. For reds that means Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petite Verdot; in white: Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. The name was selected in 1988 from 6,000 entries, combining the "merit" of a property's quality and the "heritage" of Bordeaux.

Joseph Phelp's Vineyards "Insignia" sparked the movement. In 1974, when Phelps was denied label approval for a wine of less than the required 75 percent Cabernet, he thumbed his nose at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and trademarked the "Insignia" proprietary name.

Some Meritage proprieties maintain a consistent recipe year after year. Insignia bows to the vintage to reflect each year's finest flavors -- sometimes incorporating Malbec or Merlot, sometimes Petit Verdot.

Insignia 2010 is 85 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 10 percent Petit Verdot, 3 percent Merlot and 2 percent Malbec. While the $225 tariff is too steep for this freelancer, the wine is reported to be firm, dense, complex and only a few points shy of perfect.

Rhone Ranger: A blend based on permitted grapes of France's Rhone Valley. In red: Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and others; in white: Marsanne, Rousanne and Viognier. (See Oct. 9 "Good Wine" for a complete account of these gutsy wines and winemakers.)

Rosso, Rouge or Tinto: Meaning 'red' in Italian, French and Spanish, respectively, these reds can be "baby brothers" to prestigious styles, such as Rosso di Montalcino (Sangiovese with six months in oak) is to Brunello di Montalcino (Sangiovese with two years in oak.)

With no legal meaning in the U.S., Rosso and others can represent lots and barrels left over from top bottlings, blended for delicious values, like using bits from your holiday standing rib roast to make a heartwarming stew.

•Write to Advanced Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator Mary Ross at

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