Every January, just after the long holiday reprieve, we jump back into the winery with both feet. None of this easing into the fray again, instead two days after tearing the winery apart for the end-of-year inventory, it’s all about blending.
To give you an idea of what’s happening at this time of year, the wines from the previous harvest (in this case, 2011) are all in barrel, slowly finishing up their malolactic fermentations. The fact is, other than topping, there isn’t much to do with these wines (in this case, 2011) until the fermentations are finished (and for some wines this means waiting until spring when ambient temperatures warm enough to ferment once again).
Instead for us, our focus is completely upon the previous, previous vintage (in this case, 2010). These are the wines that we carefully tucked in and put to bed last August so we could put our full attention into the upcoming harvest (in this case, 2011). And harvest we did!
So other than a couple of mid-October and mid-December free sulfur tests and barrel tastings (checking for any issues), our plunge back into the 2010 vintage was almost like a reintroduction to an old flame, remembering what characters made you fall in love so long ago, and the excitement of how they’ve matured.
What a beautiful reunion it was! Composite samples of each of the lots had been pulled, representing every single barrel of the 2010 vintage. The tasting started with a bottle each of 2010 Cab Sauv #1, Cab Sauv #2, Merlot #1, Merlot #2, Malbec #1, Malbec #2, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Syrah #1, Syrah #2, and Syrah #3, each in their 100% varietal form.
The Cabernet Franc was particularly intense, the Malbec #1 had an amazingly luscious texture, and the Syrah #3 was a stand-alone perfect wine (very uncommon).
Our task now was to make blends, working with the strengths and weaknesses of each of the wines while staying within the governmentally regulated percentages (no less than 75% of one variety in order to call it that variety), and hemmed in by the volumes of each lot we had in the winery. In other words, our goal was to make a Quintet, a Cabernet Franc, a Malbec, a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Merlot, a Syrah and a Shiraz/Cabernet out of the components we had.
The difficulty in this is that you need to start somewhere. So, we prioritize the wines depending partly on the quality of the best lots as well as the needs of our market (sales). The Quintet works nicely into this equation because it is a proprietary blend and has no regulations on percentages. In other words, we can base the wine on the best lots in the winery and blend whatever we want. This blend generally comes together very quickly, and then the fun begins.
Each component has its positives and its negatives. The nose is fantastic, but the tannins are aggressive. Or the mid-palate is intensely fruity, but it needs more of a lingering finish. The point is to blend two (or more) complimentary wines together to work with the weaknesses and build on the strengths. The difficulty, though, comes as you get farther into the blending and the components become limited in volume.
So imagine that we’ve figured out the blends for the Quintet, Cab Franc and Malbec and have started on the Cab Sauvignon. Unfortunately, the Cabernet Sauvignon really needs more 100% Cabernet Franc to enhance the blend. If that’s the case, then we need to readdress the Cab Franc blend which may in turn change the Malbec and Quintet blends. It’s a bit of a domino effect, and the rule of thumb is to be patient. It’s not uncommon to say, “If we make the blend with those percentages, then we can’t make that blend over there.”
More often than not, the patience pays off and the blends come together nicely. And that’s how the 2010 vintage worked out. The components were all very good to fantastic, with only one lot needing a bit of softening (the Cab Sauv #1, older (1 and 2 year-old) barrels) destined for the Shiraz/Cabernet.
My personal favorites were the 2010 Cabernet Franc and the 2010 Malbec, although the 2010 Signature Syrah is right there to. The interesting thing now is to take these small 100ml blends and project it out to the 500-3000 gallon blends in the tanks. Although the blends are tracked in terms of percentages, we generally determine the blends by the number of barrels to be added (i.e. 2 barrels of Cabernet, 1 barrel of Merlot, 7 barrels of Malbec, etc.). Then we can taste each barrel individually to choose the best two Cab barrels for the Quintet, or a hint more American oak for the Merlot. But we won’t do these blends for another 3 weeks.
So with two days of work, stained tongues and teeth, a plethora of blends finished, we decided it was time for a beer.
If the question is, “Is it necessary to blend?” Our answer is “Almost always, even if it’s all the same variety but from different lots.” The wines are more complex and more balanced, thus more fun to drink! And our blending January slowly moves into our bottling February.