The Art of the Blend
GSM. Rhône-style Blend. Châteauaneuf-du-Pape. Cote Rôtie. If you’ve spent any time in the wine world (which, if you’re reading this, you have), you’ve heard these terms liberally sprinkled around, especially when talking about blended wines.
Centuries of practice, of trial and error, have taught winemakers in the “old world” a thing or two about whether to blend or not to blend. In Burgundy no one is messing with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. These two varietals are perfectly grown, harvested and produced with only as much human intervention as is needed to correct anything the vineyard or weather flubbed up in delivery. Subtle and supple, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir deliciously whisper.
The Rhône varietals that make up the GSM blend (shorthand for Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre), on the other hand, SHOUT. They are daring, dynamic. Syrah is a hot wind, a warm blanket, purple on the teeth, on the pallet, down the throat. Firm Mourvèdre, terrifically tannic, crackles with black pepper, roasted meat and cocoa, earth wind and fire. While lithe Grenache is all crowd pleasing personality, holding a bouquet of fruit forward lusciousness, smelling of warm strawberries or candied cherries. Each of these three varietals can stand strong all by their lonesome. But bring them together with care, and they harmonize. They blend. A fourth dimension is discovered!
In most of the Rhône region of France 18 red varietals are grown and blended, a veritable alphabet soup of outsized personalities. Little vineyards, small plots, small farms, multi-generational grape growing and wine making. Practice practice practice. In the cooler northern Rhône regions, white wines are more prevalent. In areas such as Cote Rôtie, the dominant theme is blending of Syrah with smaller amounts (20% or less) of Viognier. Other northern Rhone regions may replace Viognier with Roussanne or Marsanne. The enzymatic reactions that occur when these aromatic white wines are blended with Syrah provide a softening and olfactory lift to the meaty and peppery Syrah, as well as enhancing color stability.
In the most famous regions of the southern Rhône it’s all about Grenache. While the number of small AOC’s (the equivalent to AVA in the US) and the blending rules within are too complex to even begin to untangle here, the one constant is that Grenache is the anchor. The star of the show, with a rotating cast of characters to surround its star.
Jump to the “new world”, the wild west; to California, Oregon and Washington. Blend it all, blend anything. Cruise Safeway, Costco, the big names abound even if they look like little names. Charming names like Sea Glass and Little Bunny are there in that big box store, and they are owned & operated by the Big Guys. Consistency of product (wine) and craft is Manna. No wonder the consumers’ eyes glaze over when they are looking for a nice blend to drink with their pork chop. A blend in the hands of a conglomerate-owned winery generally means a boozy soup made of leftovers, nothing that resembles the intention from the Rhône region.
The ideal way to make a beautiful, balanced, blend is to bring together the perfectly ripe, carefully hand sorted fruit together. But who will be the star of the show? In Napa, it’s Cabernet Sauvignon. And while all of those high scoring Cabs often don’t want to admit they had any help, a sneaky little fact- that any Napa winemaker will tell you after a few glasses- is that Merlot is the key ingredient to making the whole thing pop! That much maligned varietal (let’s move beyond Sideways already) provides just the right amount of softening effect to round out the rough edges. State laws do allow 10 to 20 percent of blending while still allowing the wine to be designated as a single varietal.
Beyond that, in the new world we have no guard rails- very few rules- especially when it comes to planting vines. In many vineyards in California, southern Oregon, and eastern Washington you could have Cabernet planted next to Syrah, with Sauvignon Blanc just across the street. What? Talk about confusion! Finding the right site growing the right varietal is tricky. First rule of thumb: Just because it ripens doesn’t make it right. Second rule of thumb: Make what you love.
For Thane Hawkins, winemaker at Hawkins Cellars, it all came together during a trip to France a decade ago. And specifically, a journey to a small, enigmatic region in southern France called Bandol. See, Bandol is the only area in France allowed to produce 100% Mourvèdre. In Bandol, they don’t even think about releasing a wine for public consumption that is under four years old. Rustic and tannic in its youth and young adolescence, over time developing floral notes of crushed violet, lavender, and dark fruit. Spending a couple of days lost in Bandol, with its jagged hillsides of terraced vineyards, Thane was “glammed”.
But how to take this brooding show stopper and make it palatable to a wider audience? Finding the star was easy. Thane has worked with Kiona Vineyards since our first vintage in 2007, and the Red Mountain region is, as the kids might say, “in the pocket” when it comes to growing bigger, more robust red wines. Check.
Syrah, meanwhile, has been with us since our first vintage, and we began co-fermenting Syrah and Viognier shortly after. Check. And, as luck would have it, a block of Grenache came online at Lonesome Spring Vineyard, the same location where we source our Viognier. Seeing as there is very little Grenache being grown in the Yakima Valley, Thane jumped at the opportunity to work with this fruit. And thus, the Caldera Red was born.
For our Caldera Red blend, Mourvèdre is the star of our show. Our Lizzo. Bombastic, in your face, can’t look away. Supported by a soulful cast of characters that make the whole groove undeniably catchy. But with an edge. This is not easy listening; rather, it’s an original. However, if you keep an open mind- and have some pulled pork or thinly sliced steak with blue cheese on hand- you might just have an out-of-body experience. The fourth dimension!
Our 2017 Caldera Red Blend recently received a Gold Medal from the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Our “all-natural MSG” blend contains:
As a small winery, our Caldera Red is only available online or at our tasting room in the Columbia Gorge. Visit www.hawkinscellars.com to learn more about us and to order online.
— Co-Written by Thane Hawkins and Holly Evans-White