Blending Basics

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Blending Basics

Postby Dan Smothergill » Tue Aug 15, 2006 4:35 pm

Blending has become of increasing interest to me as both a winemaker and a consumer. My original education in winemaking extolled the virtues of 100% varietals, a point with much to recommend itself. Yet blending often comes up these days as a worthwhile alternative. Just last week at the Rochester Home Winemaking Conference a very good Goose Watch Traminette was served. The speaker noted in passing that it was only 80% Traminette. The rest was Vidal and Muscat (she didn't know the kind of Muscat). Since only 75 - 80% of the varietal named on the label needs to be in a bottle of wine we should at least be curious about what else might be in there.

There are two sides to the coin of blending, things that go well together and things that do not. I have found little systematic work on either. This is not to deny that some wines consist of much the same blends from year to year. But the reason X, Y, and Z go well together while A, B, and C do not seems to have received little attention. Indeed, on a more basic level, it has been hard to find much on the very constituents that have been found to work vs. those that do not.

The Compleat Story of Blending in my imagination is a chart showing all the things that more or less work and all that don't, along with a narrative explanation for the difference. Meanwhile, here in the real world, a more modest beginning might be to compile the experiences of home winemakers and those in the industry.

Here are some recent examples from my own winemaking. My '05 Steuben turned out just OK, it didn't do much. I tinkered with it by blending in some '04 Vidal and some '04 Steuben. The latter had better varietal character than the '05 but was on the thin side. The final blend turned out to be 80% '05 Steuben, 15% '04 Steuben, and 5% '04 Vidal. It was a definite improvement. How good? I'll leave that to the judges at the New York State Fair Home Wine Competition.

Something that didn't work for me this year was Dutchess and Cayuga. I tried a whole range of possibilities here from mostly one to mostly the other, but none seemed much of an improvement over either by itself, neither of which was much to talk about.

Here are some anecdotes picked up over the years.

The winemaker with the highest cumulative score in the AWS amateur competition blends as a matter of course. He professes to be a Dust Bowl empiricist, trying everything in every proportion without preconceptions about what is likely to work.
Niagara and Dutchess can be a good combination. The latter is both lower in acid and tamer than the former.
Cayuga and Vignoles has been a successful blend for Howie. My own attempt at it this year didn't turn out that well. Was it year to year variation or some other difference?
Cayuga and Seyval have seemed consistently good when fermented together.
Many commercial wineries blend some Gewurztraminer in with their Riesling.

So how about it? What has worked for you and what hasn’t? For those in the industry, what is the actual composition of some Blends and some Varietals? What things have been tried that haven’t worked? I’ll try to keep a record and post updates from time to time so the topic doesn’t disappear.
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Re: Blending Basics

Postby Howie Hart » Tue Aug 15, 2006 4:55 pm

Great topic Dan.
Over the years I've tried the following blends:
2 parts Cayuga to 1 part Vignoles - I liked it
1 part Foch to 1 part Vidal - This seemed to work better when I started with fresh grapes as opposed to purchasing juice/must, but my local source of Foch has disappeared. The reason for the difference is that I used only the hard pressed juice and actually added the pressings from the Vidal to the Foch, which is almost finished fermenting as it ripens 3-4 weeks before the Vidal.
2 parts Vidal to 2 parts Seyval to 1 part Vignoles as a cuvee blend for sparkling wine - this turned out quite nice.
1 part Pinot Noir to 1 part Chardonnay also as a cuvee blend for sparkling wine - these are traditional grapes for Champagne and the bottles are just now being riddled.
(running short on time now, but will continue in another post later)
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Re: Blending Basics

Postby Bob Ross » Tue Aug 15, 2006 7:08 pm

Dan and Howie, it's very rare that I have anything useful to contribute the home wine making threads -- maybe I'll try a couple of vintages at the home winemaking facility that's only six miles from my home.

But, I attended a fascinating seminar by Randall Graham a few years ago, and thought you experts might enjoy my faltering steps in blending. I've edited out all of his references to mircro oxygenating, I hope -- if not, my apologies:

Report from Boston: Randall Rides Again; The Effects of Microbullage and Blending. [As posted on WLDG.]

Randall Grahm Rides Again! Boston Wine Expo, Sunday, January 21, 1999. The flier promised a great deal, and Randall delivered! This post contains my complete notes; TNs are also posted separately.

“As we write, Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon is conducting a unique experiment, the results of which will be revealed to attendees of this seminar. Grahm uses microbullage, a homeopathic oxygen dosage, for fermenting red wine to manipulate tannins. Several different barrel experiments on components of Cigare Volant are being treated with different levels of microbullage. You will taste those experimental wines and several finished examples of recent Cigare Volant. You will learn more from Grahm on his efforts to increase flavor in his wines and enjoy the results of his cutting edge winemaking.”

Grahm delivered an informal “State of the Doon Message.” He said that “Cigare Volant is the flag – actually space – ship of Bonny Doon. It reflects what Bonny Doon believes about red wine at the time it is made. It is a blend of four different wines: Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cinsault. The wine with the most moral authority wins. Different wines will lead in different vintages.”

Generally, there are few sources of Grenache in California, and they are generally low quality. Much of Bonny Doon’s art is devoted to “tricking” that wine. He described several techniques for modifying the grape juice, then intensifying it. He called Grenache an ugly duckling wine, often an under-achiever, but at its best, brilliant. The 1998 vintage was brilliant, the best he had ever seen at Bonny Doon.

Grenache is particularly sensitive to shatter, and in 1998 the yield was 20% of normal, less than one ton an acre. Bonny Doon gets its Grenache from a vineyard in Gilroy. It is owned by a man who was an “old coot” in 1984 when the contract was made – and now he is a “really old coot”. He refuses to make any changes in his vineyard, and Bonny Doon must work with the grape juice they get. “But, of course, we all live in an imperfect world.”

Grahm said the key 1998 components all had unusually high levels of alcohol: Grenache 15.5%, Syrah 15.0% and Mourvèdre 15.0%. All three wines were highly concentrated.

The Syrah comes from a vineyard in Bien Nacido, the best vintage ever, with an extraordinarily late harvest in early November. He said that Syrah is generally misunderstood: it should not have the forward, fruity characteristics of Shiraz, but should have the floral, delicate, feminine characteristics of CôteRôtie. The essence of Syrah is demonstrated in cold areas: white pepper, bacon fat with age, an Oscar Wilde character. Warm weather Syrah (and Australian Shiraz) is juicy and very different in Grahm’s judgment.

Mourvèdre comes from a 90 year old vineyard with beach sand soils. Old Mourvèdre is a treasure of California that is rapidly disappearing: “Mourvèdre vineyards are being replanted to condos.”

Cinsault is a funky grape for Bonny Doon, and is the only constituent of Cigare Volant grown by Bonny Doon itself; “tragically” it suffers from hydrogen sulfide – apparently caused by a nutrient deficiency in the soil. “The curse of the home vineyard!” [Someone asked if the nearby maximum security prison – “within burrowing distance” according to Bonny Doon’s newsletter – caused the problem. Grahm said he didn’t think so, but seemed to consider the suggestion seriously.]

Grahm described some of the techniques used to manage the problem, but said that they all reduced the quality of the wine made from Cinsault. (He stayed silent when members of the audience suggested we leave Cinsault out entirely when we each blended our own version of a 1998 Cigare violent.)

Grahm said his hero was Patrick Ducournau, a winemaker from Madiran, France who owned a vineyard planted to Tannat. Grahm said: “Tannat produces a hard, astringent, bitter wine that only gets worse when you try to improve it. But what is a mother to do?”

What Ducournau did was think about tannins and decide that he could alter the tannin profiles by introducing oxygen. (Grahm said it was human nature to pick single elements out of the much bigger world, and then focus on those elements. He said he was reminded of a Far Side cartoon in which all of the oxen in a team going through Death Valley look at an ox’s stall by the side of the trail.)

Ducournau’s theory of tannin, as I understood it from Grahm, is generally as follows:

There are four types of tannins: hard, green, soft and dry. The fate of all hard, green and soft tannins is to become dry, to die, to become undrinkable. A winemaker seeks to soften tannins, and seeks to make them stay soft for a long time. Oxygen will make tannins move from the hard and green categories into the soft category, but oxygen will also oxidize the wine and make the soft tannins dry and die. On the other hand, removing oxygen [“reduction”] will create hydrogen sulfide and destroy the wine’s aroma. Seeking balance is one of the major challenges of all winemakers.

[Grahm got into a long discussion of Ducournau’s various techniques for softening tannins: polymerization (i.e. creating longer chains of tannins) and other chemical reactions. As he went on, he said the discussion had gotten “too geeky”. My technical notes are unclear, and they aren’t reproduced here. The essence of his remarks was that carefully controlling the introduction of oxygen into wine will soften tannins.]

[Deletion of section on Microbullage.]

***

Grahm emphasized that over the centuries cellar men had used other techniques to do the same thing; elevage has been the most common technique. Oxygen will permeate wood and the bung areas in barrels, and the oxygen will be absorbed by the wine. Cellar men use larger barrels for wines with lots of softer tannins because there is relatively less wood in contact with the wine; they use smaller barrels for wines with harder or greener tannins because there is relatively more wood in contact with the wine.

Grahm’s approach to the problem had been different than Ducournau’s as a conceptual matter. He got interested in acupuncture and the concept of vitality or Xi [pronounced “ghee”]. We all have X; too much when we are young so we have to find ways to control its release; too little as we age so we have to find ways to protect it; none at all and we die.

Wine is like that. Some wines have lots of Xi; others have much less. The enemy of XI in wine is oxygen: wine with the ability to absorb more oxygen will have a longer life. Grahm said he thinks of wine as being on a journey: beginning, middle and end. Most of the focus is on fermentation at the beginning of a wine’s life, because that is an exciting period, like the culmination of the sex act. Ducournau stops his efforts to control oxygen when the wine is bottled, but Grahm said his goal is to make wine immortal.

One must protect the wine’s Xi after it is bottled, and the way to do that is by keeping lees in the bottled wine. (Lees are the yeast bodies left after fermentation.) Reason: lees are oxygen scavengers and will remove oxygen from the wine and protect the soft tannins. Keeping lees in the wine present several problems, but Grahm said he believed he could solve them: “This is the secret of immortal life. I could have been an alchemist during the Middle Ages, and I can be one now. Of course, this is economically ruinous. But we have no choice.”

[From Bonny Doon’s web page: “THE ALCHEMIST

TO SEE THE WORLD IN A GRAIN OF
SAND,

AND A HEAVEN IN A WILD FLOWER,

HOLD INFINITY IN THE PALM OF
YOUR HAND,

AND ETERNITY IN A GOOD CIGARE.]

One of the technical problems is that the lees will fall to the bottom of tank over time and make a very hard film, as hard as concrete. They somehow have to be kept in suspension in order to have enough for an entire vintage. In the sample lots, Grahm is using various methods of riddling, or turning the five liter bottles; but the are very heavy. Another problem is time; Grahm said he had to release his wine for two reasons: to get money … and to get money. Finally, the techniques can add two to three years before wines can be released.

We then made our own 1998 blend of Cigare Volant, using glasses of each of the four constituent wines. Grahm suggested that we blend one third each of the Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, and just a touch of Cinsault. Many people left out the Cinsault. [Grahm said there were special beakers for measuring the exact quantities, but that he didn’t think great precision was very important.]

Grahm tasted the result and called it “pretty great”; most people agreed. Someone suggested that because the Grenache was so intense and saturated, we add a bit more. The result was surprising; the new blend had significantly less aroma and was more closed in taste.

Grahm asked if we like the blend better than the individual constituents. There was a general preference for the blend, but I said that I preferred the Grenache on its own. Grahm said he thought it was a very close call.

We then moved on to a comparison taste of the 1995 Cigare Volant and the 1995 Cigare Volant Reserve. Grahm said Bonny Doon had made 10 or 15 five gallon carboys of the Reserve, different carboys containing 2%, 3% or 4% lees, and being rotated in different ways – 180 degrees, 360 degrees, etc. at different times -- to mix the lees in the wine. They had spent three years in the carboys, and the wine had been bottled two weeks ago in anticipation of the tasting.

***

Great presentation; other notes available on request.

Regards, Bob
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Re: Blending Basics

Postby Howie Hart » Tue Aug 15, 2006 11:02 pm

(I'm back)
After thinking about this for a while (and taking a nap 8) ) I realize I was not really addressing your request in my first post, but simply citing specific examples. I've read a bit about blending, and although most of what I read seems logical, there seems to be certain fundamentals that don't seem to get mentioned. The first is to have a basic understanding of each of the varietals. Acidity, tannic structure, aroma profiles, tasting qualities and finish. Certain varietals, under proper growing conditions and winemaking techniques are quite capable of standing alone. I don't know why, but it seems that in the traditional winegrowing regions of Europe, blending is much more common in the Southern regions (Italy, Spain, Bordeaux, Rhone), whereas, varietals predominate in the Northern regions (Burgundy, Loire, Alsace, Germany - with the major exception being Champagne). Dan, since you and I are in the Northeast, our situation is more akin to Northern Europe, whereas those in the Mid-Atlantic or West Coast are more akin to Southern Europe. Here in the Northeast, we also have at our disposal several varieties that are not generally grown in other areas, such as labruscas an hybrids. The vineferas grown in the Finger Lakes, Michigan and Niagara Peninsula are usually from Northern Europe: Riesling, Chardonnay, Gewurtztraminer, Gamay, Pinot Noir and Cab Franc (as in Loire) and I don't believe a lot of blending here will do much. However, hybrids are a different thing altogether. Few of these seem to be able to make great wines on their own, as each one has seems to have some distinct characteristic and tend to be unidimensional, especially the red hybrids. Baco, for instance, always has a wonderful and powerful aroma, but suffers fom high acidity and a short finish. DeChaunac, on the other hand, which ripens later, but to a lower acidity, has a fuller mouthfeel and a long finish. I've read that one should blend a high acid wine with a low acid wine to achieve a proper balance, I think this is a bit simplistic, as high acidity can be handled in other ways. I believe the best reasons to blend are to either tone down a highly distinctive feature that may lead to an unbalanced wine or to enhance a wine that lacks certain characteristics. Seyval, for example, has a good mouthfeel, medium-long finish and nice acid balance, but does not exhibit a lot distinctive character. On the one hand, I believe a Seyval based wine could be enhanced by the addition of up to 25% Vignoles, a wine with high acidity and distinct vinefera aromas, yielding a wine very much like a Chardonnay. On the other hand, blending up to 33% Seyval into a unidimensional, distinctive wine such as Vidal, Niagara or Catawba, would tone it down and round out the wine.

Probably the poorest reason for blending is poor planning, which is what I did last year. Last year I bought 2 pails each of Cab Franc and Gamay must from a presshouse in the Niagara Peninsula. After pressing, I ended up with 7.5 gallons of each, which doesn't work well with my 5-gallon carboys, so I blended 2.5 gallons of each into one carboy, a blend I would not normally make. I haven't bottled it yet, but I'll save you a bottle for evaluation. :oops:
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Re: Blending Basics

Postby Howie Hart » Tue Aug 15, 2006 11:06 pm

Thanks for the post, Bob. Interesting reading, but I am totally unfamiliar with the grape varieties mentioned, so a lot of it went over my head. The suspension of the lees, while not necessarily on the topic of blending, is interesting.
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Re: Blending Basics

Postby Bob Ross » Wed Aug 16, 2006 2:28 am

I remember two keys points, Howie. Make each wine that goes into the blend as well as it can be made. Then, try different combinations -- it was amazing how different the blend could be with just two or three percentage additions.

It was a great deal of fun, and I came away with alot of respect for blending by taste, not by numbers.
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Re: Blending Basics

Postby Howie Hart » Wed Aug 16, 2006 9:02 am

Bob Ross wrote:I remember two keys points, Howie. Make each wine that goes into the blend as well as it can be made. Then, try different combinations -- it was amazing how different the blend could be with just two or three percentage additions.

It was a great deal of fun, and I came away with alot of respect for blending by taste, not by numbers.


I can't argue with that and I've done that. However, the timing of the blend could actually screw things up. I once blended two red hybrids (Foch and DeChaunac) prior to bottling. The blend was excellent when I made, however, I was unaware the Foch had gone through Malo-Lactic fermentation and the DeChaunac hadn't. So, after I blended it, the M-L started again on the fresh malic from the DeChaunac and after a few corks started to pop out, I had to empty all the bottles back into a carboy to allow it to finish before re-bottling. However, the change in character left a wine that was not nearly as good as it was when the original blend was made. I've never got down to adjusting blends by percentage points - usually by 10% or 25% increments - more due to the logistics of small batches in carboys.
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Re: Blending Basics

Postby Bob Ross » Wed Aug 16, 2006 9:11 am

Thanks, Howie. Randall made the same point -- he took a great deal of care to be sure the four different parts were at the correct stage for blending, and he had a mild contempt for precision in measurement.

Part of that was showmanship, I'm sure.

Thanks for the education. This winemaking -- 'taint easy McGee.
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Re: Blending Basics

Postby Paul B. » Wed Aug 16, 2006 11:11 am

I have to say that as a home winemaker, I have not yet tried to make any blended wines. Most of my efforts center on making the best varietal Concord and Niagara wines that I can - either alternately in successive years, or sometimes, concurrently within given vintages. My love of dry Concord and dry Niagara keeps me coming back to these varieties, but I know that one year I shall want to try something different. It's just that it'll have to be unique; I don't see the point of making a Gamay or Vidal or Chardonnay, because all of these are so very easily available at the VQA section of any LCBO in Ontario. Personally, I prefer to make wines from rare or little-used grape varieties as the resulting wines are simply not commercially available. I still have an abiding desire, for instance, to make that crisply acidic, bone-dry varietal Catawba one year.

Now, having said that, an interesting hybrid blend that I tried was the Chancellor/Seyval blend that our friend Bob H. brought to MoCool last year. The wine did have some issues with cleanliness - but what I could taste through that was excellent to my palate. The Chancellor/Seyval blend was quite gamey and I often find that Seyval, while sometimes neutral and uninteresting, can give a slight almost labrusca-like gaminess in the bouquet.

One of the best-ever blended white wines that I tried was the inaugural 2002 Halton White made at Scotch Block Country Winery in Milton, which is not anywhere near the Niagara Peninsula but about half an hour's west of Mississauga. The blend consisted of Vidal, Seyval, Cayuga and Auxerrois - the one sole vinifera component. The wine was beautifully made; it was clean and crisp and had a warm 13% alcohol ('02 was an exceptional summer), and about 1 g/l r.s. It had a citrusy aroma with very slight musky/candied-labrusca hints from the obviously very ripe Cayuga (which has a touch of labrusca in its parentage). I could have done with 0%, but it was good enough. Anyway, the following winter did in many of the young vines at the Toccalino vineyard, and unfortunately later vintages had to be made with must imported from the Peninsula. They have not yet recreated that first-year blend that I praised so much.

I can't say that I'll be making a blend anytime soon. If I do, it might be a co-fermentation rather than a post-fermentation, mathematically proportional blend, strictly speaking. But between the dry Catawba that I want to make and the oaked, varietal De Chaunac, I might just be a few years away from that first blend.
Hybrid Wines Online:
http://hybridwines.blogspot.ca
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Re: Blending Basics

Postby Victorwine » Wed Aug 16, 2006 11:35 pm

Hi Dan,
Excellent topic.
One would think (well I do anyway) any grape varieties that can be handled in a similar fashion in the cellar would must likely make good blending partners. Than of course there are certain grapes that by themselves have some special attributes (color intensity, acidity, structure, backbone etc.) but produce only a moderate or neutral wine on their own, so these types of grapes make excellent blending partners.
The purpose of blending is to produce a composite wine that is “better” than any of its components separately. The wines (or grapes, for co-fermentations) used for blending might be from different varieties, varying clones of the same variety, different regions, varying types of cooperage (or wines that went through slightly different “cellar treatments”- number of racking, left on lees for an extended period of time, partial ML etc.), and different vintages. (As Howie pointed out when blending much later in the winemaking process the wines must be sound and stable).
I would not expect much of a change if I blended two or more wines that I thought were just mediocre. (At least one component of the blend must posses something (a special attribute) to contribute to the blend). On the other if I blended a wine I thought was just mediocre because it lacked acidity and appeared a little flat and dull with a wine of known higher acidity and more crisp and liveliness to it I would expect some improvement.

Salute
BTW Howie your I'm Back reply was excellent!
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Re: Blending Basics

Postby Howie Hart » Sun Aug 20, 2006 10:38 pm

I posted the following in another thread (Taste of Grapes) and victorwine suggest I re-post it here, so here it is.

I made an interesting observation several years ago. I was making some Foch, an early ripening, deeply colored hybrid that were very ripe (25.5 brix). A few weeks later, I gently pressed out Vidal, a white hybrid at normal ripening of about 21 Brix. I added the hard pressed Vidal juice, pulp and skins to about half of the Foch - the other half I kept as a complete 100% varietal. After the wines completed fermentation, I was surprised to find that the one that had the Vidal pressings added actually had a deeper, more purple color. In addition, the 100% varietal actually declined quite quickly, whereas the blend kept for a longer time. I posed this dilemma to forumites here (the old WLDG - they provided links to studies) and learned that the pH has an effect on the color and hue of a wine and its stability. By adding the higher acid Vidal, I lowered the pH, which affected the overall quality of the wine.
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Re: Blending Basics

Postby Victorwine » Thu Aug 24, 2006 11:12 pm

Tom H has posted an interesting article from “SF Chronicle Field Blends”

Salute
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Re: Blending Basics

Postby Dave Erickson » Mon Oct 23, 2006 9:33 pm

First: What I know about home winemaking you could fit in a thimble.

Second: I was shocked to discover that there are now fewer than 10,000 acres of grenache planted in California. I have to believe that just about all of it must go into Gallo Hearty Burgundy, or Livingston, or whatever they're calling it now. :D

Third: I've been waiting for someone to comment on how blending affects the way wines taste in the mouth. My examples are not home winemaking examples, so I apologize in advance. Go through this exercise sometime: Pour some cabernet sauvignon into a glass. Pour some merlot into a glass. When you taste the Cabernet, notice that you taste it with the edges of your tongue. Now try the Merlot, and notice that you taste it more in the center of your tongue. Now, pour a little of the Cabernet and the Merlot into a glass together. Now you'll taste the wine on your whole tongue. This is what we mean when we say "mouthfilling" (well, anyway, it's what I mean :D ).

I was put through this exercise myself many years ago by Philip Hele of the Hunter Resort Wine School in Australia's Hunter Valley.
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Re: Blending Basics

Postby Howie Hart » Mon Oct 23, 2006 11:37 pm

Dave Erickson wrote:...Third: I've been waiting for someone to comment on how blending affects the way wines taste in the mouth. My examples are not home winemaking examples, so I apologize in advance. Go through this exercise sometime: Pour some cabernet sauvignon into a glass. Pour some merlot into a glass. When you taste the Cabernet, notice that you taste it with the edges of your tongue. Now try the Merlot, and notice that you taste it more in the center of your tongue. Now, pour a little of the Cabernet and the Merlot into a glass together. Now you'll taste the wine on your whole tongue. This is what we mean when we say "mouthfilling" (well, anyway, it's what I mean :D ).

I was put through this exercise myself many years ago by Philip Hele of the Hunter Resort Wine School in Australia's Hunter Valley.

Thanks for posting this Dave. I've done this many times before bottling. Line up 5 glasses, fill one at one end with variety A, fill the one at the other end with variety B, fill the one in the middle 50/50, and the other two are 25/75 and 75/25. I've even done this with a high acid white (Vidal and a low acid red (Foch) - one of the fun aspects of winemaking. This year I'll be blending Foch with Leon Millot and Vignoles with Cayuga (they're all still fermenting right now).
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