Take a glass of water. Add a shot of, say, blackcurrant cordial. It’s no longer water. It’s a glass of blackcurrant cordial. Pretty simple.
Australian wine labelling law permits the inclusion of up to 15 per cent of any variety or varieties in a bottle without the vendor naming that extra dollop of whatever it is on the label.
If it were wine, according to our law, I could still sell that glass of cordial as a glass of water.
If I made a Riesling and added 15 per cent Shiraz, I could still legally brand the wine as Riesling.
This is an unlikely blend, but I use the example as evidence of just how much room-to-move this law permits.
It exists to give winemakers blending room: wine can be improved by such a tweak, or changed radically from what it purports to be.
If I added more than 15 per cent of that second variety, or any others, I would be obliged to list them on the label. Or I could simply not mention any varieties at all and instead call it Voombochoof or something.
This room-to-move also assists the producer to dispose of small parcels of this or that; the odds and ends that always build up through vintage. It provides an escape route to hide mistakes and experiments; what I call an accountant’s blend.
Viognier’s a prime example. When many people planted this quirky white in the ‘noughties, there was a brief fashion of adding some to Shiraz, which was sold as Shiraz Viognier. Unfortunately, a lot of that Viognier left quite a bit to be desired. As with many “new” varieties, the experimentation unfortunately fitted the template of my sceptical mantra: wrong variety; wrong location; wrong winemaker, wrong reason – as in no real research before making the decision to plant Viognier.
The punter is not a mug. The last thing a big porty Shiraz needs is a gloop of Viognier that’s so ripe it tastes like apricot jam. So there was soon a stubborn market resistance to Shiraz Viognier.
What did the winemakers do? They took the word Viognier off the label. So the punters were drinking what they thought was Shiraz and couldn’t quite work out what was odd about it. This, of course, influences the way the unwitting buyer then regards Shiraz.
In comparison to this act of sheer convenience for the opportunistic winemaker, away off at the more creative end, on the bench of the master blender, the œnological parfumier, there’s not much evidence of intelligently constructive activity.
One bright example of unusual gastronomic intelligence being shown on the blending bench is the wine of Stephen Pannell, the McLaren Vale Bushing King. His cellar-door customers can’t get enough of his SC Pannell Aromatico, a slurpy white blend of Adelaide Hills Gewürztraminer, Riesling and Pinot Gris.
Typical of his enquiring nature, Steve bothered to track down the most likely source of Gewürztraminer in the Alto Adige in Northern Italy, where there’s a town called Tramin. The Traminers call their local variety Aromatico, so that’s the name he chose for his bottle.
“Gewürztraminer has the best pungent, alluring aroma.” Steve says. “Orange blossom, lychee and roses … but it’s low in acid so I blended it with Riesling and Pinot Gris to take advantage of their higher natural acidity, and left some mouth-filling sweetness in the finish. It’s like my Moscato for grown-ups.”
This recipe may seem pretty simple and obvious when you read of it like this, but such basic intelligence and planning is unfortunately rare in Australia.
Either that, or it’s widespread and the buyer has no idea, probably because the wine is forgettable.
Steve’s 2016 Bushing Trophy winner is a blend of Touriga nacional, Cabernet sauvignon and Mataro. While he’d been dreaming of a blend along these lines for some time, the opportunity to actually do it came when these varieties, all in one McLaren Vale vineyard, ripened together and he felt that serendipitous mix was the best possible reflection of his site and its terroir.
So, different reason, but similar result: a distinctive and lovely drink that obviously suited the prejudices of the many judges at the McLaren Vale Wine Show.
It sure seems to please the punters as much as the Aromatico. And he’s put those varieties up big on the front.
Perhaps the most significant multi-variety blending team I’ve watched in Australia was the brilliant duo of Wolf Blass and John Glaetzer. When the ebullient Len Evans and Brian Croser were insisting that everyone suddenly plant Chardonnay, Wolfie was adamant he and Glaetzer could do a better job of that style by blending varieties already available.
While Evans preached his gospel of Chardonnay becoming “the vanilla of the Australian wine industry”, the Blass duo were blending Riesling, Crouchen, Semillon, Colombard and I reckon sometimes some Muscadelle or Frontignac to make what they called Classic Dry White. Beneath that bold brand, Wolf always listed the ingredient varieties in descending order of their proportion.
Wolf was adamant that the Chardonnay experiment was too big and misplaced, but within a couple of years the Chardonnay word had caught on. People could pronounce it. It rhymed with Cabernet. It was new. It sounded posh. All the wine writers raved about it.
Given the incredibly confusing range of quality they threw at us in the ’80s and well through the ’90s, the only thing I could see that was selling Chardonnay as a type was its name. I’m pretty sure that if Wolfie’d called his blend Chardonnay he would have prevailed. At least his wine was consistent: Wolf and Johnny “The Ferret” could alter their composition according to vintage variations in their suite of components. It was good low-priced premium wine.
There’s a PhD here for somebody who researches the causes, but by the end of the ’90s the industrial belief was simple: you couldn’t sell blends. The punters didn’t understand it. They never would. Blending was out. Especially if you admitted to it on the label.
I always felt this blockage had mainly to do with the vast gap of knowledge and learning that yawned between the winemakers, their sales teams and the grocers who would eventually hand the bottles to the customers and take their money. There wasn’t a lot of effort going into anything other than brand or single-variety promotion; the actual business of wine education was left to the wine writers, who were paid by newspaper and magazine proprietors, not winemakers. As we now see, that couldn’t go on forever. Major metropolitan newspaper wine columns, as they were, are pretty much gone.
This marketplace failure of wine blends mysteriously coincided with Australia discovering the sparkling wines made in that part of France they call Champagne. These, of course, were principally blends of Chardonnay, Pinot noir and sometimes, as in the case of the mighty Krug, Pinot meunier.
Rather than drive away the consumer, these blends soon triggered the rise of a more knowing consumer. Discerning enthusiasts learned to discuss their favourites, however simply, but many gradually gained confidence in their nascent knowledge of their fizzy favourites, and whether they were dominant in Chardonnay, Pinot noir or even the meunier.
This was good for Champagne, and stands to this day as a perfect example of how the punter, knowingly or not, will happily buy blends, often very expensive, if they’re good drinks.
Sparkling wine masters like Andrew Hardy at Petaluma and Ed Carr at Arras have enjoyed great prosperity making fine Australian wines to follow this healthy trend.
While the wine business obstresses over a flood of very confusing new varieties, which is a good thing if there’s some science and method in it, this writer can’t help thinking there’s a lot of very good wine waiting to be made from what we already – often traditionally – grow. If only we can train a generation of winemakers and marketers who can handle the liberating notion of that cordial I mentioned up the top, and go on to learn a little of the basics of, well, gastronomic parfumerie.
There’s plenty of room in our law for highly creative blends, just as there’s room on the shelves, provided the prejudices of the vendors and customers can be assuaged by drinks of better quality.
That’s not such a big ask, surely?
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