One of the most “shocking” revelations our tasting room customers get is finding out that our little red table wine, El Tinto, takes the most time and effort to blend. In fact, the ability to make a great table wine shows more the talent of winemaker than almost any other wine out there. Would you be up to task?
Think about it. Great Rieslings and great Cabernets showcase the essence of the vineyards. The hard work is done in the field with meticulous leaf removal, arduous crop dropping and a complete knowledge of balancing one’s vines. If anything, the efforts of the “winemaker” in the winery are to not screw up the elegance and expression of the vine’s hard work.
When we taste a wine bolstered up by grape concentrate, liquid oak, gum Arabic, biolees, MegaRed, MegaPurple, etc., we should be donning a cap to the winemaker as he/she makes up for huge deficiencies in the starting wine. This person is really “making” a wine much like a pastry chef makes bread with a recipe.
The beginnings of our El Tinto are based upon the idea of “sustainability” in the winery. Not all lots of wine are slated for making premium wines. Often, the press lots (the wines separated out during the pressing of the fermenting or recently fermented wines) have harsher characters which would detract from the purity of the free run wines. (Sometimes the press wines can be blended back into the main wines because they contain dense characters useful to the overall blend.)
These press lots are combined with wines settled from heavy lees (the sludge in the barrel), making the beginnings of our El Tinto base wine.
Similarly, making the best blend for our Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot may not take every barrel of Cabernet Sauvignon. It all comes down to taste and percentages. So invariably, there will be a barrel of Cab or Merlot or Chard or Zin left over once the final premium blends are finished.
These wines, perfectly fine in character, are blended into the El Tinto base wine. Over the course of a year’s time, we can amass 15 or 20 barrels of base wine, all in the name of producing the best varietal wines our vineyards make.
Now starts the fun. Unlike our Quintet, which gleans off the best of the best lots for blending, our El Tinto starts with a structured (tannic) blend of reds and whites of our 27 varieties. The wine will have good color, great backbone, unidentifiable fruit characters, yet be potentially lacking in different areas.
The skill of the winemaker is to take this starting point and bring it about into a pleasing palate that makes this Tuesday night wine drink like a Saturday-night-special-occasion wine.
So, we start to look in the cellar at all the different wines we have in barrel, focusing on wines with fresh fruit characters (something the base wine often lacks) and wines with richer (not tannic) palates. I’m generally not interested in manipulating the base wine (with fining and such), but instead looking to blend into the voids of the base wine.
The enjoyment here is truly “making” a wine. If the wine needs some aromatics, look to Zinfandel and Grenache. If the wine has need of acid and low tannins, the Barbera is the fix. If the wine needs color and backbone, perhaps some Petite Sirah. And if the El Tinto needs to bolster the dark fruit characters and could use a hint of rounding, maybe the Portuguese varieties will work.
So many potential blending components make this a wine that we keep going back to time and time again to tweak just a little more. We make an addition of Zin or Merlot, Barbera or Syrah and then wait a couple of weeks to try it again.
Finally, after working on the wine for what seems like an eternity, the El Tinto will have a beautiful balance with just enough fresh fruit and maybe even a hint of spice. Our artist’s palate is finally finished, and we sit back and enjoy our work. The wine is bottled and ready to go.
And then the next day we start collecting the odds and ends for our next production, a year down the road!