Tim James: Why do we blend different grapes?

By , 27 July 2020

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Why blend, rather than sticking to one variety? The more I ponder the question, the clearer to me it is that there’s always yet another reason to be found – but two of the commonest are probably “just because it’s there” and “tradition”. Though, of course, we can always hope that there’s an underlying aim of making a better wine from what’s available. You could always ask old Europe to bear witness to all these ideas, with hundreds of years sifting out the best potential of what’s available, either for blends or for single-variety wines. Although then you have to also consider modern “improvements”, which might also be considered as appealing to particular markets – such as the rise of the SuperTuscans rejecting the dominance of traditional varieties and techniques in favour of the international lust for the red Bordeaux varieties matured in new oak barriques.

Take the Cape’s white wines, for an instructive example about blending. Doubtless, the overwhelming number of “Dry Whites” (or their sweeter alternatives) simply reflect what’s available in those million-litre tanks, blended to make a wine that hopefully meets the market profile for a particular wine. At a more ambitious level of winemaking, things get more complicated, as the winemaker gets more demanding. In Swartland (or what could be called Swartland-style) whites, for example, where Chenin blanc is frequently the base, winemakers often seek to add some Clairette, generally a pretty neutral variety, not to add particular aromas or flavours, but to naturally bring up the blend’s freshness. On the other hand, viognier would be used (or sometimes avoided!) less for structural reasons than for aromatic ones, as it easily adds some peachy perfume. (There was, incidentally, a brief vogue which I suspect to have originated in Australia and “legitimised” by probably overstated practice in Côte-Rôtie in the Northern Rhône, to blend in some viognier to add a floral note to syrah; there are still some of these made, some very good, like La Motte’s Pierneef version, but fewer than a decade back, I think.)

To get back to the whites. I mentioned Chenin as the commonest base of Swartland-style whites – a now well established and critically successful category reaching far beyond the Swartland itself, but dating back less than two decades, to the maiden Sadie Family Palladius of 2002. Chenin was inevitably an (internationally unprecedented) significant part of Sadie’s blend because great quality old-vine Chenin was in such abundance in the Swartland. He also had easy access to good viognier and chardonnay. Since then, the growing complexity of the blend has seen the number of varietal components growing to something like a dozen. Some of them, particularly, are serving notably useful functions: early-picked grenache blanc and Clairette, for example, where fairly early additions, made to bring freshness and brightness. But some seem “merely” to be there because they are characteristic of the Swartland and therefore (somewhat theoretically as well as practically) contribute to the aim of making a wine that is reflective of that regional terroir. The Badenhorst Kalmoesfontein White similarly has around a dozen varieties, and I suspect it might be difficult to identify the contributing virtue of each and every one of them – though the whole is splendid indeed.

The “Swartland blend” was influenced by winemaking ideas of, especially, the south of France and the Rhône valley (and the latter influence has grown, notably with the increasing use of varieties like grenache blanc, Marsanne and Roussanne at least as much in blends as well as in varietal wines). But if the Swartland blend emerged from specifically Cape conditions (including Cape history as expressed by the ubiquity of old-vine Chenin), the Semillon-Sauvignon blend, made famous by André van Rensburg’s 2001 Vergelen, speaks eloquently of another reason for blending: authority and prestige. This is not at all to diminish van Rensburg’s wish to create something new (for South Africa) and commanding, from two varieties which complement each other beautifully. But that complementarity was long proved in the Graves region of Bordeaux and had acquired an international prestige which has undoubtedly furthered the proliferation of this blend in the cooler parts of the Cape.

Wines featuring all five major red Bordeaux grapes and named for the fact.

It’s always interesting to suspect the greater prestige of European, especially Bordeaux, influence on South African winemaking than on some other, perhaps more self-confident New World producers, like California and Australia, where blended wines from the Bordeaux grapes are less advertised, and probably less practised, than here, and monovarietal cabernet sauvignon, for example, generally has more unambiguous prestige. Another suspicion I have long held is that there are more red wines in the Cape than in Bordeaux (let alone other countries) which proudly announce that they contain all five major red Bordeaux grapes – sometimes even naming the wine for that fact, in advance, as in De Toren Fusion V, Van Biljon Cinq, Raka Quinary, Constantia Glen Five, and Spier Creative Block Five if you know of others, please let me know; Gabriëlskloof used to have Five Arches).

If the traditional Bordeaux red blend (with cabernet sauvignon and merlot as overwhelmingly the major partners) has unparalleled prestige, it is not entirely because it “works” so much better than the individual varieties on their own (though it often does). Post-phylloxera replanting in Bordeaux eliminated a great many minor varieties (of course the plantings were not legislated then as they are now), leaving cab and merlot dominant. To an extent, this was a blend which reflected a happy partnership, with fleshier merlot plumping the elegant austerity of cab’s framework (as Rhône syrah also seems to have done in bad vintages in the old days). But it also worked as a kind of insurance policy, making it likelier that one or other variety would do better in difficult years. This must surely have also been behind the radically mixed vineyards of, for example, much of old Portugal.

But what was primarily exported to the emulating New World, surely, was the prestige of Bordeaux, with recipes trailing behind it. I had intended to speak in this article about what has happened to cab-based red blends here, especially with regard to cinsault, but that must wait, as I haven’t left myself enough space. Let me rather finish with a memory connected with that Bordeaux prestige here.

Billy Hofmeyr was self-taught when it came to winemaking, but a true lover of Bordeaux reds and that style was what he wanted to create when he established, in the 1970s, his small Paarl farm called Welgemeend. His 1979 Estate Wine was the Cape’s first commercial release of a red Bordeaux blend. He thought, incidentally, that it contained those five major varieties, but it later turned out that the petit Verdot was something else entirely. Anyway, as well as making the best wine he could each year from those varieties, he also amused and taught himself by making up each year a few bottles according to the blends of various famous Bordeaux châteaux, and he would put on the bottles photocopied labels from Margaux, Pétrus, Lafitte, etc, as appropriate. Billy retired from winemaking in the earlier 1990s, and earlier this century the Hofmeyr family sold the property, leaving a number of those Bordeaux facsimiles in the cellar. The excited new owners got in touch with an equally excited, and at that stage equally naïve retailer, who tried to sell them – but fortunately, the mistake was noticed before any irreparable harm was done to anyone’s reputation. Perhaps only I remember.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013

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2 comment(s)

  • Hennie Taljaard27 July 2020

    I read somewhere Billy Hofmeyr’s last vintage was 1989; if anyone reading this can confirm?

    • Tim James27 July 2020

      Hennie – Billy’s decline was fairly gradual. His daughter Louise started assisting from around 1990 – blending and bottling that vintage as well as the 1991, which Billy had also vinified. So 1989 was the last year he was in total control, but not the last vintage for which he deserves credit. Louise proved an excellent successor.

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