© by John Juergens
The other day I was having a nice meal with a couple of wine friends. We had a couple of California Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines going; one was a "typical" big, juicy, fruit-forward Napa Valley product that had a few percent of Merlot added to it. The other was a fairly pricey "Bordeaux blend" consisting of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and a touch of Petit Verdot. It, too, was from Napa, but as one would expect, there were substantial differences not only in how the wines tasted, but also in how they paired up with the food.
This got me to thinking about why, for example, some red wines blend nicely with the rule-of-thumb foods such as red meats and others don't. I've also had the same experiences with white wines and white meats and fish. I think it has a lot to do with blending, and selecting the right wine for the how it is going to be consumed and the food that will be served with it.
Just about everyone who has taken one of my wine classes or shared a multi-wine dinner with me knows that at some point I probably will start blending some of the wines on the table. I do this a lot just out of curiosity to see if I can produce a third drinkable wine, or as an attempt to "fix" something I find lacking in one of the wines.
First timers usually seem almost horrified that I would do this, as if there is something sacred about the integrity of each individual wine. Typically, they will say something like, "Are you allowed to do that?" In fact, the final exercise in my advanced wine class focuses exclusively on blending wines to demonstrate the importance of the balance among the many components of wine, and how a wine can be modified to improve it, to fix certain deficiencies, or how it can be degraded by relatively small changes in those components.
One of the major differences between wine drinkers in Europe and the new world countries (Australia, New Zealand, North and South America, and South Africa) is that while we focus on specific grape types, the old world focuses on location. For example, a typical American consumer will look to buy a Cabernet Sauvignon while a Frenchman will look for a Bordeaux. What many new world wine drinkers don't seem to understand is that almost all red wines, old world and new world, are blended to some extent to achieve a certain style, character, and quality. Some white wines are blended as well, but not to the extent of red wines. The Australians are now even blending white wine with some of their reds. Infidels and barbarians at the gates!
Just as every artist has a style, every wine maker has a certain style they try to achieve in each wine they make. But wine makers do not have total control over their art as do painters, for example. Wine makers have to work within the context of all the variables Mother Nature likes to taunt them with, so every vintage presents a challenge to achieve a product that is within the wine maker's stylistic range. This is done through the judicious adjustment — some purists call this manipulation or manufacturing — of acid, sugar, tannin, and alcohol content, the use of certain kinds of oak or stainless steel aging, and other processes, and, of course, blending of different types of wines.
The perfect example of this practice is blending Merlot, which usually is a very soft wine, with Cabernet Sauvignon to round out some of its typically harsh edges. More of this kind of blending is necessary in Europe where climate and other terroir features are far more variable than in most new world wine producing regions. To illustrate, here are the starting blends, or "encépages" of several of the most famous wines of Bordeaux:
Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Paulliac:
- 68 percent Cabernet Sauvignon
- 18 percent Merlot
- 13 percent Cabernet Franc
- 1 percent Petit Verdot
- 55 percent Cabernet Sauvignon
- 25 percent Cabernet Franc
- 20 percent Merlot
Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, Paulliac:
- 90 percent Cabernet Sauvignon
- 7 percent Cabernet Franc
- 3 percent Merlot
As you can see, there are substantial differences among wineries in the same region, and wine makers will adjust these starting percentages to achieve the style and character they desire. This is why most old world wine drinkers will focus on the region and the wine maker rather than a particular grape type.
Given that the climatic conditions of most new world countries are more stable than in Europe, there tends to be more consistency from year to year in the fruit, which requires less adjusting to achieve a certain style of wine. So we focus on wines made from specifically from Cabernet, Merlot, and Pinot Noir, for example, from different parts of California, Washington, and Oregon. However, to be called a "Cabernet," a "Merlot," or a "Pinot Noir," the wine must contain at least 75 percent of that grape type. But the other 25 percent can be anything.
Bringing this back to wine and food pairings, I believe there are two major considerations. First is the big difference we all know about between old and new world wines, that is, old world wines will be leaner and with less up front fruit, which usually allows them to match up with more kinds of foods. Often, the big fruity nature of many new world wines, both red and white, will clash with or overpower the food flavors.
But the second consideration is just as important. Many new world wine makers produce what they call traditional "Bordeaux Blends," that is, they are blending their wines in the style of some types of Bordeaux wines as I illustrated above. They do this to get away from that over-the-top style that has become so characteristic of new world wines. And these blends, while still more intense than their French counterparts, tend to be more subtle, elegant, and food friendly.
So if you are looking for a wine that will go better with a meal, as opposed to a big, fat cocktail wine, usually you can find this information on the back label of the bottle. New world wine makers are proud of their efforts and will make it very clear that they have used a Bordeaux blend, even though it might still say Cabernet Sauvignon on the front label.
Cheers, and good hunting and gathering.