What's In A Blend? How To Navigate The Multi-Variety Wine Trend

They were once sniffed at as wine’s “leftovers” but blends are finally gaining recognition in New Zealand for their astonishing complexity


Photo / Babiche Martens

“Like the All Blacks, blends are similar to a great team,” says Te Whare Ra’s Anna Flowerday. “They offer a lot as you get different contributions from the different varietals, which make the whole greater than a sum of the parts.”

Add to this the infinite variety of flavours and textures that can be created from multiple permutations and proportions, and you can see why some of us find wine blends so exciting.

Blends may now be on trend, but in Aotearoa we have largely been living in a single varietal world, as — like many newer winemaking nations — we figure out how individual grapes perform on our soils. Europe, with its far longer winegrowing history, is less fixated on showcasing or imbibing solo players, and often leaves varieties off the wine label altogether.

However, here, blends have historically been eyed with suspicion, as noted by Anna, who with her now highly respected Toru blend, was one of very few making serious white blends in the country when she launched it 15 years ago.

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“When we first embarked on the Toru project it seemed that, here in New Zealand, blends were viewed as second rate and somewhere you ‘hide the leftovers’,” she recalls. “But we wanted to flip the script on that and make a blend that stood up against the best single varietal wines, so we made Toru from our best grapes.”

A handful of grape varieties, such as pinot noir and nebbiolo, do tend to score more tries on their own. This solo success is something acknowledged by Esk Valley’s Gordon Russell, but as the maker of one of the country’s most revered red blends, The Terraces, he enjoys the creative scope offered by the blend.

“You can imagine that when using one variety you are painting with one colour,” he observes. “Of course different tones of that colour can be found in the same vineyard, but using multiple varieties is like using a broader palette of colours, each with its own texture, tannin structure and flavour profile. The possibilities are endless and hence the fun for both the winemaker and the drinker.”

From the premier grand crus of Bordeaux to chianti and port to Champagne, many of the great wines of the world are blends.

Combinations of local varieties have emerged as making the best wines, with the different grapes filling in gaps and adding extra layers. The Bordeaux Blend of black varieties, in particular, has proved so successful it’s now emulated the world over.

“The main actors of the Bordeaux Blend are played by merlot, the softener; cabernet franc, for spice; and cabernet sauvignon, which lends acidity, tannin and typical blackcurrant flavours,” explains Hans Herzog, who makes his own Marlborough version, along with a number of other blends. “All three varieties are beautiful on their own when ripe but married together can achieve perfect harmony, complementing each other to achieve astonishing complexity.”

In traditional wine regions, blends have often come to dominate due to practical as well as aesthetic concerns. As varieties flower and ripen at different times, working with more than one grape spreads the risks posed by challenging weather over the growing season and vintage.

This is particularly pertinent in more marginal climates, such as that of Bordeaux (and New Zealand too), which in cool years can struggle to ripen the likes of cabernet sauvignon, when merlot then comes to the fore. In ultra-chilly Champagne, blending is central to achieving consistency, which not only extends across varieties in many of its examples but also its vintages.

Many of the new wave of blends we’re now seeing are “field blends”, where instead of varieties being kept separate and blended as finished wines, they are harvested and fermented together. This harks back to earlier times when varieties were regularly mixed up in the vineyard, with growers often having little idea of what was planted where.

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Not only can fermenting varieties as one make for more harmonious wines, field blends shift the focus from the character of the grape to that of the vineyard, offering fascinating profiles of the places they’re from.

Fuelling some of the recent interest in blends has been the more eclectic combinations being made in New Zealand and beyond. These have strayed way beyond the classic conjunctions, further expanding the flavour spectrum through wines that can see grapes of widely different origins and hues mingle in the same bottle.

Rules are being broken, and surprisingly successful pairings are emerging, such as the likes of pinot noir with pinot gris here in New Zealand, which is resulting in some wonderfully fragrant rosés and soft, fruity reds.

“I think people are now comfortable with trying things outside the box of the standard varietals and the same people that will maybe try an albarino or gamay will also try blends as well,” observes Anna. “Also, I think most importantly they are just this delicious combo of great things and, really, wine’s main function is to be delicious.”

10 BRILLIANT BLENDS TO TRY

Te Whare Ra “Toru” Single Vineyard Marlborough 2020, $28
Varieties: gewurztraminer, riesling, pinot gris

A beautifully balanced field blend of Alsace varieties redolent of white flowers and exotic spice, with a whisper of sweetness and a silky texture that layers lush tropical fruits and hints of apricot over a zingy line of grapefruit.

From: Twrwines.co.nz; Wine Direct; By the Bottle; Vino Fino; The Hamilton Wine & Beer Co; Moore Wilson’s

Millton “Libiamo” Gisborne Field Blend 2020, $40
Varieties: viognier, marsanne, muscat

Fermentation of these white grapes on their skins for seven months has imparted a golden hue and a highly fragrant character to this field blend. Rich, ripe and viscous, its mandarin and apricot are infused with notes of coriander, cardamom and fennel, finishing on a note of citrus pith.

From: Moore Wilson’s; Star Superette; Millton.co.nz

Scout “Pinot x Pinot” Central Otago 2021, $32
Varieties: pinot noir, pinot gris

Fragrant pinot noir is softened by partnering with its paler relation, pinot gris, in this silky light red. It’s juicy with bright berries and red cherries, and hints of rose petal and spice. Serve chilled, with a smile.

From: Scoutwines.co.nz; Cult Wine; By the Bottle; Boutiqueconnection.co.nz

Astrolabe Marlborough Rose 2021, $28
Varieties: pinot noir, pinot gris

Another successful pinot combo, this time as a rosé. This newly launched wine from Marlborough’s Awatere Valley is highly perfumed with notes of jasmine and baking spice threading the fresh raspberry- and strawberry-tinged pear of its crisp and bone-dry palate.

From: Caro’s; Advintage; Moore Wilson’s; Vino Fino; Wine Freedom Dunedin

Esk Valley Artisanal Collection Gimblett Gravels Hawke’s Bay Malbec Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon 2019, $25
Varieties: malbec, merlot, cabernet sauvignon

Plush and pure blackcurrant, blackberry and bottled plum fuse with fragrant notes of violet and graphite in this fresh Hawke’s Bay Bordeaux blend. The malbec and cabernet sauvignon provide its power, with softness from the merlot. Incredibly good value too.

From: Liquorland; Regional Wines and Spirits; Vino Fino; Advintage; First Glass

Huntress “Waikoa” Gladstone Wairarapa 2021, $36
Varieties: riesling, sauvignon blanc, viognier, pinot gris

Skin-fermentation of these four varieties emphasises their aromatic nature, with spice and white florals to the fore in this attractive white blend. Notes of ripe apricot and peach are supported by a fresh line of citrus and a gentle pithy grip.

From: Huntress.co.nz; Regional Wines and Spirits; Vino Fino; Martinborough Wine Merchants; Star Superette

Koerner “The Clare 20” Clare Valley, Australia 2020, $49
Varieties: cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, malbec, grenache, carignan, sciacarello

A blend that starts in Bordeaux, before it heads southeast and ends up with a dash of the lesser-known Italian grape, sciacarello. Possessing a lovely symmetry between richness and freshness, it’s a seductively supple wine with pure blackberry and plum, scented with violet, liquorice and new leather.

From: Wine Freedom Dunedin; Fine Wine Delivery Company; Point Wines; Vintners.nz; Caro’s

Bryterlater “Brambles” Field Blend North Canterbury Syrah Rose 2021, $36
Varieties: syrah, sauvignon blanc, riesling, pinot noir

The red and white grapes for this compelling unfiltered cloudy rosé field blend come from vineyards across North Canterbury. It’s dry, fuller-bodied and textural with raspberry coulis and pomegranate, notes of white pepper, herb and rose, and an attractive almost sherberty mineral tang.

From: Everyday Wine; Star Superette; Vino Fino; Point Chev Organic Wines; Cave a Vin

Hans Herzog “Mistral” Marlborough 2017, $64
Varieties: viognier, marsanne, roussanne

This white Rhone trio gets a Marlborough remix in this richly textured and highly aromatic wine. Ripe apricot and peach are laced with exotic spice and layered with creme patissiere cut with a citrusy freshness.

From: Herzog.co.nz; Great Little Vineyards; Decant; Regional Wines and Spirits; The Winery Arrowtown

Moet & Chandon Brut Imperial Champagne, France NV, $73
Varieties: pinot noir, pinot meunier, chardonnay

Possibly the world’s most elaborate blend, Moet & Chandon’s flagship Champagne is recreated every year from over 100 different wines, up to 30 per cent of which are from older vintages. Skilled blending results in a consistent house style in which crisp apple and citrus fruits are joined by richer notes of sweet pastry and toasted almond.

From: Glengarry; The Good Wine Company; Vine Online

This story was originally published in volume six of Viva Magazine.

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