What Are Red Blends, Really?

Everywhere from high-end wine shops to supermarkets, red blends are suddenly white-hot. But what are they, exactly? F&W's Ray Isle delves into the blending trend.

Red Wine Blends
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Here's a question that may not have occurred to you before: When is a wine like a burrito? The answer, as I recently discovered, becomes clear when you're making one—specifically, a red blend.

Let me define the term. In the US, a red blend is essentially any domestic wine that's not made from a specific grape variety. If you've ever purchased Apothic Red or Gnarly Head Authentic Black at a supermarket for $15 or so, you're part of the trend (oddly enough, a $750 bottle of Harlan Estate falls into the category, too). Red blends now sell more, by volume, than either Pinot Noir or Merlot, and they're on track to become even more popular than Cabernet Sauvignon, the longtime red wine king.

It's a strange category, because many, and possibly even most, red wines are and have always been blends. A grand cru Bordeaux made from 100 percent Cabernet is the exception rather than the rule, as are Chiantis made from 100 percent Sangiovese. Also, California law only requires a wine to include 75 percent of the grape variety on the label, which means the bargain Pinot Noir you had at a dinner party the other night might well have been 10 percent Syrah. (Just don't tell your host.)

Winemakers blend grapes because it allows them, in a sense, to design a wine. A little Merlot can help soften Cabernet's tannins; a touch of Syrah can give some oomph to watery, cheap Pinot. In many regions, blending is traditional: Rioja, for example, historically blends Tempranillo, Graciano and Garnacha. On the other hand, many new, affordable red blends are simply concocted for mass appeal—lots of superripe, dark fruit and not very much acidity—using whatever varieties will do the trick.

But it wasn't till I sat down with some Bay Area–based members of F&W's Firstleaf wine club that it occurred to me to connect red blends with burritos.

This was a few months ago, in the tasting room at Wind Gap Wines in Sonoma County. We'd been tasked with creating a red wine blend for the club, specifically one that would be ideal for Thanksgiving. Wind Gap's owner and winemaker, Pax Mahle, was guiding the process, and I was free to weigh in, but the club members had the final vote.

What I learned was this: First, you don't have to be a winemaker or even a wine expert to come up with some extremely smart observations about blending. Hearing one of the Firstleaf club members say, regarding the difference between percentages of Syrah in our potential wine, "I think those Syrah tannins are starting to overwhelm some of the other characteristics" was very heartening. Also, once our group began tasting the potential blends with food, they universally leaned toward lighter, more elegant options—an appealing argument against the idea that non–wine-business people all love massive, wildly ripe red wines with everything.

But here's the burrito part. When winemakers assemble a blend, they almost always start from a base; for the Firstleaf project, it was old-vine Zinfandel. To that we added a touch of Cabernet Franc and Malbec, "to give some really interesting spice," as Mahle said. We tried varying percentages of Grenache to lighten things up; ditto Syrah for richness and depth. And while wine romantics might not agree, for me the whole process really did remind me of assembling a burrito: using steak or chicken or some other protein as your base, adding salsa or jalapeños for spice, then maybe some sour cream and cheese for richness—but not too much of any of them, the whole point being balance.

So when we selected the final red blend for Firstleaf, the winner was the one in which each component, though clearly present, was subordinate to the whole. No one would take a sip of our wine (now known as Milieaux Legacy Red) and think that it tasted like 40 percent old-vine Zin, 40 percent Malbec and Cabernet Franc, 15 percent Grenache and 5 percent Syrah. Instead, I like to think that anyone who tries it will sit back and think, Wow, that's good.

That's also true for the 12 bottles on the list below, which are my favorites from a massive tasting we recently held at F&W headquarters. (Yes, we have a wine room at the office.) They show the red-blend trend at its best—and any of them would be just great with Thanksgiving dinner.

1. NV Marietta Old Vine Red Lot #64 ($15)

Released whenever winemaker Jake Bilbro feels the time is right, this berry-rich nonvintage Zinfandel blend uses fruit from old-vine vineyards scattered throughout Northern California.

2. 2013 Sonoma Collection District 3 Red Blend ($17)

Matt Stornetta and Ned Hill, two talented young vineyard managers, collaborate on this toasty, medium-bodied red. They use their extensive Sonoma-area connections to source impressive (mostly Merlot) grapes.

3. 2014 Joel Gott Columbia Valley Red ($17)

American oak gives this Merlot-driven Washington state red an appealingly warm baking-spice note—you won't be far off if you think of a just-baked cherry pie.

4. 2013 Bogle The Phantom ($18)

Big and intense, with a licorice edge, this somewhat spookily labeled mix of mostly Zinfandel and Petite Sirah would be fun to pour at a Halloween party (and delicious any other time as well).

5. 2013 Terre Rouge Garrigue ($20)

Longtime Rhône variety specialist Bill Easton makes this chewy red as an homage to the classic blends of France's Mediterranean coast.

6. 2013 Purple Heart Red ($20)

Part of the proceeds from this peppery Syrah-based California red blend—$20,000 so far this year—helps fund the Purple Heart Foundation, which gives financial support to US veterans. The winemakers are vets, too: Ray Coursen served in Vietnam and David Grega served in Iraq.

7. NV Troublemaker 10 Austin Hope Wine Collection ($20)

Paso Robles's warm climate gives this savory Syrah blend a lot of rich black fruit. It's massive, but somehow balanced as well.

8. 2014 Virginia Dare The Lost Colony Red Blend ($23)

This briary, oaky red, primarily a blend of Syrah and Malbec, comes from Sonoma County's warm Dry Creek Valley region.

9. 2014 Banshee Mordecai ($25)

A grab bag of grape varieties—Cabernet, Syrah, Zinfandel and others—makes up this mocha-scented red from up-and-coming California winemaker Noah Dorrance.

10. 2013 Buty Winery Beast Wildebeest ($24)

Vintner Nina Buty's Walla Walla, Washington, winery is known for its high-end Cabernets and Rhône-style blends. Her wines under the Beast label, like this plush Syrah-Cabernet, offer similar quality at half the price.

11. 2014 Tenshen Red ($25)

Top Central Coast winemaker Joey Tensley teamed up with importer Alex Guarachi to create this ebullient, fruit-forward Syrah blend.

12. 2013 Beringer The Waymaker ($28)

A touch of the unusual southwestern France Tannat grape gives this spicy Syrah-based red from Paso Robles firm structure and a fragrant green peppercorn note.

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