After years of taking a back seat to single-varietals, red wine blends are currently experiencing a surge of popularity. Dozens and dozens of lower-priced labels like Apothic Red, Ménage à Trois, and The Prisoner crowd the shelves, all Zinfandel-based blends that are fruity, plush and easy on the palate. These newcomers may be all the rage, but red blends are nothing novel, sharing a pedigree that stretches back centuries.
Vintners blend varietals for a very specific reason: to create altogether new wines with an aroma, depth of flavor, structure and finish far more complex and balanced than the sum of the individual parts, as the best elements of each wine lend their strengths to the finished product. So the aggressive tannins of a young Cabernet, for example, can be softened by an addition of Merlot, and Syrah and Mourvèdre (and any number of 15 other grape varieties) can be blended to enhance Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s Grenache base.
The art of blending wine is practiced the world over. France’s famous Bordeaux blend is a proprietary mixture of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, and Carménère, while in the Rhône Valley, combinations based on Syrah and Grenache predominate. Italian winemakers, frustrated with the restrictive regulations governing the production of Chianti, have challenged authority with so-called "Super Tuscan" wines: high-end blends primarily based on Cabernet or Sangiovese. As in the southern Rhône, Australian vintners combine Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre to make berry-rich GSMs; Argentina bases its blends on Malbec; and Spain makes use of Tempranillo for its Riojas. In this country, a stand-alone varietal must by law contain at least 75 percent of the varietal grape. In 1988, a group of Napa Valley vintners formed an association to produce Bordeaux-style blends called "Meritage" wines that could vary in composition as long as the classic Bordeaux grapes were used.