How One Couple Learned Wine Blending in the French Coutryside

An American couple living in a remote fold of southern France longed to become part of the local community. Then they got a thrilling invitation to a winemaker's blending session.

Wine Blending
Photo: © Mary Jo Hoffman

An American couple living in a remote fold of southern France longed to become part of the local community. Then they got a thrilling invitation to a winemaker's blending session.

Our backs hurt, our brains sagged, our mouths were sore. We had just spent a hardworking shift on our feet in the slightly headachy fluorescent glare of a laboratory. Outside, all morning, the Mediterranean sun had bathed the beaches and vineyards of this corner of the Languedoc in late-autumn warmth.

Mary Jo got in the car, shut the door and looked over at me. "Was that possibly the best morning we've ever spent in France?" I asked her.

"Holy crap," she said, with a grin that displayed some very pretty blue teeth.

For most of our years together, wine had been liquid in a glass, a minor life enhancer. This morning, in an obscure and insular fold of deep rural France, wine was the ring that held the keys to the kingdom.

Almost three months before, my wife, Mary Jo, and I had arrived at a rented stone house in Autignac—population 900 or so—in the Faugères wine region, where the last slopes of the Massif Central meet the coastal plain running out to the Mediterranean. Our hopes, as a Francophone American family, had been, in roughly this order: Send the kids to the local schools—which we had done—and integrate into the life of the village, which we had not.

The villages of southern France know just what foreign visitors want. What they want is to get sunburned on beaches, view pretty landscapes from elevated vistas, shop at markets and boutiques, and drink too much wine on terraces with other visitors who speak their language. That we did not want any of those things appeared to have come as a vast surprise to our fellow villagers. It wasn't really until we volunteered to pick grapes, and then persisted throughout the harvest, that our neighbors began to see us, with a wary humph of respect, for the very strange species of tourist we were.

One hot fall afternoon, late in the harvest, we were unloading crates of perfect grapes from the back of a cargo van when a man working alongside us asked, in a soft Midi accent, if we would like to join him for the assemblage, or blending, of a local wine called Mas Gabinèle. Our co-worker, as it turned out, was Thierry Rodriguez; Mas Gabinèle is his wine, and we were unloading his grapes.

It would be hard to overstate the thrill of this invitation. We'd flirted with the region. We'd enticed it into conversation. We had even sweatily held hands a few times. But getting invited to something as intimate as an assemblage felt like the first fluttery intimation that things might be getting serious.

So it was that we found ourselves, in late November, in a laboratory, surrounded by perhaps 70 years of winemaking experience divided among three of the attendees—Rodriguez, his enologist Jean Natoli, and Claire, Natoli's assistant. The two remaining participants, Mary Jo and I, representing the great state of Minnesota, boasted wine careers spanning roughly 70 days apiece.

Across the room waited our day's labor, arrayed along a countertop: 27 bottles with sloped, Burgundy-shaped shoulders and handwritten labels.

Thierry was speaking softly to Jean, in an improbably high tenor for such a big man. He looked concerned. Thierry often looked concerned. He was a finicky aesthete, we'd learned, who had placed an enormous career wager, in middle age, on a substance subject to the vagaries of weather, disease and hired help. There was much to be concerned about.

But today was an especially excruciating day to be Thierry Rodriguez, because today he would find out whether the 2011 vintage of his Mas Gabinèle wines would live up to his extremely high hopes for it.

Thierry produces three Mas Gabinèle reds—a traditional Faugères, using the appellation's blend of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Carignan and Cinsaut; Rarissime, heavy on Syrah and a worthy rival to most Châteauneuf-du-Papes; and, finally, what you could call his folly, Inaccessible, mostly made from Mourvèdre and which sells for $100 a bottle in a region known for wines a tenth that price.

Jean described Inaccessible as un monstre: huge alcohol, huge tannin, huge fruit, all held in perfect balance. It was the kind of wine—demanding absolutely top-quality grapes—that couldn't be produced every year. It was the kind of wine that could make a reputation, or sit unsold on wine store shelves and destroy a career. And it was precisely the kind of wine that Thierry needed to sell, he explained, if he was going to pay for the brand-new winery, under construction when we were there, that he had designed to his own exacting and expensive specifications.

Jean made a pouting face meant to be reassuring. The 2011 vintage promised an adequate amount of monstrosity, he felt. Thierry looked over at him with hopeful, and somewhat anxious, professional deference.

And then it was time to blend some wine.

Each of the 27 bottles was a sample of the contents of a vat, or a row of oak casks, back at the winery. Each was made from a single grape variety, often from a single vineyard, and was the culmination of several dozen decisions—how to prune, how much growth to allow, when to harvest, which fermentation method to use, how long to macerate, whether to age in oak and for how long. Our job over the next three hours would be to sip from each bottle, assess and track our favorites by sliding the best bottles forward. Based on those ratings, we would attempt to assemble three costly and complex wines, in descending order of quality and price, in hopes that Jean could deliver, at day's end, the recipes for Thierry's 2011 wines.

We began marching down the row of bottles. Claire would pour two fingers from each and announce what it was: "Syrah, Carbonic Maceration, Casks 1-6." The five of us would swirl, sip, suck, consider and spit into a sink—in a tight, elegant stream if the spitter was, say, a winemaker or enologist, and sometimes in a flaccid, splashing cascade. Then we would discuss.

Occasionally, if a wine merited it, we would move a bottle forward a few inches. More rarely, we would come across one of the monsters, or a slightly less powerful bébé monstre. That bottle would take two or sometimes three steps forward.

"…Mourvèdre, Barrels 45-57…"

It sounds like a joke to claim that a morning spent tasting wine was hard work. But around wine number 20, Mary Jo and I were rubber-legged. Our backs hurt. Our brains sagged. Our mouths felt chalky and sore. "I'm going to pass out," I said, "and I haven't swallowed a drop."

We sat out a few rounds, marveling at the stamina of our crewmates. And then, a little heroically, Mary Jo and I grabbed our picks and shovels and headed back down into the mine that is wine tasting and assemblage. We worked until the whistle blew at bottle 27: Cinsaut, no oak.

At this point, Jean began acting very much like a scientist in a lab, which, of course, he was. He poured winning bottles into glass beakers, and beakers into other beakers, until he had concocted one complete imaginary bottle of wine, a bottle he then offered to us to taste.

I don't pretend to have access to all the reasons the blend accomplished what it did. Earlier, sipping from the row of samples, I had thought to myself several times, OK, stop right here. Here's your wine. No need to blend anything. But a mouthful of Jean's prototype made most of the individual bottles seem a little simplistic or exaggerated. The peppery spikiness of the Syrah got smoothed out. The hard tannic darkness of the young Mourvèdre softened. The blend had more flavor. It filled your mouth differently.

We're used to varietal wines in the US: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel. But winemakers in southern France talk about blending as lying very close to the heart of what they do. There is a refreshingly blue-collar dimension to much of a French winemaker's year, a lot of pruning and spraying and pumping and shoveling. The French winemakers we met didn't often use the word art, but when they did, they were usually talking about blending. Our morning in the lab made clear what they meant in a way I could never have understood until I'd sipped down a row of single varietals and then tasted, minutes later, their individual contributions to the blended whole.

Jean found this first effort "pleasing enough," but he wanted to deepen the color with more Syrah and use one particularly luscious Grenache to add a bit of silkiness. This was what he could do that the rest of us could not. He was not reacting to what was there, but building something that wasn't. Even Thierry spent a good deal of time nodding to the beat of Jean's improvisations, rather than contributing his own riffs.

Four permutations later, we all agreed that the 2011 Inaccessible had found itself. It spilled over with excess as it was supposed to, but—and here Jean got to use one of his favorite words—the final blend was nevertheless remarkably "consensual." We had just witnessed the birth of a vintage, and 2011 was going to be a very good year at Mas Gabinèle. And we had the privilege of watching a man of almost courtly reserve spend 10 minutes quietly corking his baby monsters, with a smile of the purest fatherly delight.

Later, in the parking lot, as a kind of exclamation point, or possibly just intoxicated by the general felicity, Thierry kissed Mary Jo and me on both cheeks and thanked us for being there with him, as one might thank a supportive friend post-crisis. Then he grabbed a mostly full bottle of the last vintage of Inaccessible, the 2010, and recommended that we enjoy its remaining $80 or $90 worth of wine with dinner.

Back in the car, Mary Jo and I wound homeward along the familiar curves of the D13, richer by a bottle of wine, among other things. Ahead of us waited a tiny village, a stone house and two kids to pick up at school.

Steve Hoffman is a Minneapolis food writer and tax preparer, and an occasional French villager. He Instagrams @sjrhoffman.

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