Recently, a very bright friend of mine begged me to make her something to tape to her refrigerator. The "something" turned out to be a list of all the major wine regions of Europe, along with the grape variety (or varieties) in each wine. "Meursault, Pouilly-Fumé, Vouvray ― it's so frustrating!" she sighed. "How am I supposed to know they're actually ... ah ..."
"Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chenin Blanc?" I finished her question.
I sympathize. Like lots of Westerners, my friend learned about different varieties by drinking the wines of California, Washington, and Oregon. Oh, the comforting simplicity of buying those wines! Mondavi Chardonnay ― it's as easy to grasp as Häagen-Dazs vanilla: Name of producer. Name of flavor. End of issue.
In fact, a wine such as Mondavi Chardonnay exemplifies one of the noble philosophies of winemaking: namely, that given the right climate and site, a single grape variety can produce a delicious, complex wine. (Note: By U.S. law, a wine labeled with a single variety must be 75 percent that variety. In practice, however, many wines are 100 percent one variety.)
There is also, however, an opposite, equally noble view. And many American winemakers are now headed in this second direction. Rather than single-variety wines, they are making blends. Wine names such as "Rocks and Gravel," from the producer Edmunds St. John, or "Le Mistral," from Joseph Phelps, don't tell you what the grape variety is. And that's because there isn't one.
There are several ― and for a good reason. When certain varieties are blended, an almost magical transformation takes place. The flavor of the resulting wine can be far greater than the sum of its parts. Some of the most exciting red wines now being made in the West, for example, are blends of Rhône grape varieties, including Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Carignan, and Cinsault.
"When unblended, some varieties can be beautiful but ultimately not fully ..." Steve Edmunds, proprietor and winemaker of Edmunds St. John, searches for the right word. "Well ― complete," he says. Complete?
"Wholly satisfying," Edmunds tries to explain. "A complete wine has breadth, depth, balance, complexity, attractive fruit, and, beneath all that, mysterious layers of other flavors and aromas."
For him, many of the Rhône varieties verge on incomplete. But blend them together and bam! "Suddenly all kinds of flavors start happening that you couldn't possibly have imagined," he says.
The blending-toward-greatness idea is not new. In France's Rhône Valley itself, wines such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape have been blends as far back as they've been recorded. The philosophy is also deep-seated in Champagne and Bordeaux. For both areas, greatness hinges on blending.
In the United States, we're just getting used to this idea. Not knowing the grape varieties, after all, means you need to get to know and trust the producer. Sometimes, of course, the producer spills the beans. The back label of "Le Cigare Volant" from Bonny Doon Vineyard, for example, lists the varieties.
But don't feel compelled to look, because in the best of senses, it doesn't matter that the wine is X percent Syrah plus Y percent Grenache and so on. The flavor of a great blend always goes beyond that of its components. It's the synergy that counts. And synergy has to be tasted to be believed.
GREAT RHONE BLENDS
Andrew Murray "Esperance" 1997 (Santa Barbara County), $18. Massive and muscular, with wonderful espresso, chocolate, and boysenberry flavors.
Bonny Doon "Le Cigare Volant" 1996 (California), $23. One of the first Rhône blends, and still one of the best. Randall Grahm, proprietor and winemaker of Bonny Doon, is a man whose sense of the outrageous knows few bounds. This wine howls.
Eberle "Côtes du Rôbles" 1997 (Paso Robles), $14. Modeled on the simple, rustic wines of the southern Rhône, this delicious red is begging for a homey stew or pasta dish.
Edmunds St. John "Rocks and Gravel" 1997 (California), $16. Absolutely delicious ― a dead ringer for a French Rhône. Rich, long, and very satisfying. Full of licorice, berry, and complex meaty flavors.
Joseph Phelps "Le Mistral" 1996 (California), $25. Spicy pomegranate flavors. I could drink this lively wine anytime.
Qupe "Los Olivos Cuvée" 1996 (Santa Barbara County), $18. Alive, intense, and dramatic. Massive black flavors ― fabulous.
T-Vine Rhône blend 1995 (Napa Valley), $18.50. Only a little was made, but it's worth keeping a lookout for. Saturated and delicious menthol, tar, and boysenberry flavors.
SUNSET'S STEAL OF THE MONTH: La Vieille Ferme 1995 (Côtes du Luberon), $7. La Vieille Ferme (the old farm) is consistently one of the best deals among southern French reds. Spicy and meaty, with good juicy flavors and notes of saddle leather. A real winner with all kinds of slow-cooked meats. Try it with lamb shanks!