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Are single-vineyard wines better than blends?

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Of the five wines I gave perfect scores of 100 points to during my years as a wine critic, two were blends: Cardinale 2006 and Verite 2007 La Muse.

(Yes, both were Jackson Family Wines, which is one of the reasons I love working here.)

If I’d thought, by the time I reviewed them, that single-vineyard wines are better than blends, those experience disabused me of that notion. The Cardinale, as it turned out, was a blend of  six Napa Valley appellations: Howell Mountain, Mount Veeder, Oakville, Stags Leap, Spring Mountain and St. Helena. The Verite consisted of grapes from Alexander Valley, Bennett Valley, Knights Valley and Chalk Hill.

I think most people, including critics, believe that single-vineyard wines are the best. Why is this so? Because throughout the modern classic history of wine, from the 1600s onward, the wines from specific estates—which is to say, single vineyards—from France and Germany were considered the best in the world. And they probably were.

A mythos thus arose around these wines. Those great Bordeaux, Burgundies, Hocks and Mosels were so famous, so good, people figured there had to be a reason for it. And the reason was easy to discern: terroir. Wine experts, such as there were, sleuthed out these vineyards, and in every case discovered tangible physical distinctions that lifted the vineyards to grand cru status over their neighbors.

It’s odd that no one questioned this leap of faith. If there had been an internet and wine bloggers, someone might have wondered why the wine from a single vineyard was, ipso facto, better than one blended from multiple great sites. But then, blending from multiple great sites was not in the European tradition of chateaux, domaines and schlosses. It took the Californians, in the modern era, to do that—and to prove that a blend didn’t have to be a high-production common wine, but one that could play at the highest world level.

Indeed, why should it not be so? It is logically coherent to say that a blended wine can correct for the divots, or faults, of a wine from a single vineyard. The latter may, in any given vintage, be incomplete in some way: acidity, texture, fruit, complexity. Give the winemaker extra colors to play with on her palatte, and she can create a Renoir, not just an Ansel Adams.

“Just” an Ansel Adams? Well, frankly, yes. Compare a black-and-white photo of Half Dome with the cost of a Renoir at auction.

Now, before y’all start in on the hate mail, I also gave 100 points to Shafer 2004 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon, a fabulous expression of a vineyard. So I’m not saying “Blends are the best.” But I do think it’s time to evaluate our attitude toward blends as somehow lesser creatures.

Does that include Pinot Noir? Yes. There’s no reason a blend of, say, Russian River Valley and Santa Rita Hills couldn’t kill. The fact that marketing, commercial and other perfectly understandable considerations make that unlikely should not discredit the point I’m trying to make.

  1. Steve,

    If I may, let me take a slightly contrary position. I think there are deeper reasons than those you mention for believing in single-vineyard wines.

    A single-vineyard wine allows the drinker to examine a place over time. This may be a place that they are never able to visit, except by the experience conveyed in that glass. A collector can come to learn about Clos Pepe or Pisoni Vineyards by tasting our (Siduri’s) version of that wine over multiple vintages. That same person can also see that same vineyard as interpreted by other winemakers (such as Brian Loring or Jeff Pisoni), and yet find similar characteristic underlying each of those wines. And, yes, sometimes those characteristics are the “divots” you mention There’s no doubt a blend can be a superb tasting wine, but it doesn’t convey that type of meaning, or reflect that type of place. And I think that reflection of place over a period of time in a glass is something that some of us want, and savor in a deeper way.

    I am a hip-hop fan, and a couple of years ago, Drake had a song entitled “Best I Ever Had.” Could that “best” be a relationship with multiple people (an orgy so to speak?) — I suppose it could be. But there’s no doubt he’s rapping to one person. Because somehow I think many of us want that “one” — person or in the case of wine, place that stands out over time.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  2. While single vineyards may outperform blends at times, they also have a place as a class unto themselves, where they are compared only to each other.

  3. Adam, well, I never expected to hear an analogy between Drake, orgies and vineyard designates! Thanks for a thoughtful comment.

  4. Let’s do more to leave single-vineyard wines in a class unto their own, & compare them only to each other for their relative merits. Which wines excel in blends should also remain in the best blends class, to appreciate this masterful craft.

  5. Ever since I can “afford” working with multiple vineyards within the same appellation I actually make more complex and balanced wines. My top blends tend to reflect a higher quality than a single wineyard selection. It just translates to more tools at a wine maker’s work shop.

  6. Well, they’re almost always more expensive so they must be better!

  7. To me, this question is like comparing Bach’s suites for unaccompanied cello to his Brandenburg Concertos.

    Sometimes what I want is to focus on, contemplate, and appreciate the subtlety of which a single instrument – or a single vineyard – is capable.

    At other times, I want to marvel at the intricacy and layered development that multiple voices – or blended terroirs – can give.

    Neither is “better.” They are only different, and appreciated differently depending on mood and circumstance.

    Cheers!

  8. John Roberts says:

    I think single-vineyard wines will typically be exalted or held as higher than blends, though blends can often be better, which stands to reason. There’s a mystic quality to wine which single-site wines especially evince, for all the reasons put forth by Steve and Adam. Raw nature shaped by the artistry of various winemakers over time, accessible to anyone with money and acquistiveness. Popular tastes may influence winemaker habits so single-vineyard wines, besides the obvious reasons it would be more desirable to those seeking “terroir,” also give the wine-buyer a more gratifying sense that they are accessing something concrete, knowable, and yet, permanent in some way. This all in some way ultimately points to the debate on what makes a wine better, it being more gratifying, or more “intellectual?” Or both, something else entirely? Cardinale is fantastic but a Hewitt, or Beckstoffer or Nickel & Nickel Cabernet also give you something to imagine, to touch and smell, to intellectualize and make into poetry.

  9. Marie
    Whilst I’m always THRILLED to interact with a lover of JSB’s music, I’m not entirely certain the “instrumentation” analogy holds. Though I need to think on it a bit. Perhaps situationally….
    A few thoughts:
    * The instrumentation is the vehicle (in part) to convey the music. The underlying music is what is key. Any number of composers could use the exact same instrumentation (for any Brandenburg, solo cello suite…) and, of course, the music will be quite different (and necessarily inferior!) from what Bach composed.
    * Moreover, JSB is well known for self parody in his output -parody in the sense of a piece of music being based on an earlier one – as well as reuse resulting in reinstrumentation.
    * In the case of wine vinyard times n (for any n=1,2…,…n) is the immovalbe construct, as is the underlying music (e.g. BWV 542, is BWV 542 regardless if it is performed on organ, or arranged for, say brass)
    * From what I understand, *sometimes* blends are done because a given site does not yield the bests balance in a wine, either in a given year, or at all full stop. I can’t think of a situation where JSB felt instrumentation was the key to improving a sub-par piece of music. Though, that certainly may be true of many other composers
    Still, I think get where you’re coming from so will give it more thought
    -dr

  10. If the blend is an interpretation from a revered figure based on his/her aesthetic & ethical standards and crafty hands, wine consumers will join his/her ride. But, as what the revered Madam Corison demonstrates, one also has a choice of Kronos vs NV Cabernet.

    The concern here for an average consumer is the real motif behind a wine-maker’s decision with blending or sticking with single vineyard: Is it for achieving higher profit margins by “trimming” cost like product bundling or earning a 90&above score by catering for critics’ palette or something else?

    My personable experience created my bonding with s-vineyard wines. The Cab Franc 2008 from a Virginia vineyard has been my fond & inerasable wine-memory. When I tried it at the tasting room, I liked it right way w/t any reservations. At the time, I had no knowledge about wine and the varietal – it was simply personal taste. I liked both its style and price and were willing to pay for shipping to get more bottle from Virginia. My Cali folks here mocked me for going crazy after a Virginian wine. However, when I was ready to order the 2nd shipment, they had been sold out. That was a real bummer for me, and it turned out it was the Brits who discovered them and snapped up ravenously. I later ordered the 2009 vintage and found, to my dismay, that it was never the same. I saved some bottles for aging hoping they would surprise me someday. Last year, I revisited them, and all the three bottles I opened went down to the drain. It was sad but not annoying emotion for me. A vineyard has a body and soul like us; we all have our moments of HIs&LOWs, and none of us is perfect and adorable all the time and every time.

    I like what Katy Perry sings in Teenage Dream: You think I’m pretty without any makeups on, and you think I’m funny with when I tell the punchline wrong.

  11. This discourse has me swooning as much as any (single vineyard or blend) wine could ever. I am tipsy with the comparisions to music – from Bach to Drake- and soul- and look forward to much more. As for the wine debate: I agree with much already said, in pariticular that to savour and reflect and taste with attention,single is most satisfying. Salut et a votre sante.

  12. Geologically unique single vineyards are “outliers.”

    DRC’s Romanée-Conti is a monopole comprising 4.4 acres. DRC’s La Tâche is a monopole comprising 15 acres.

    Krug’s Clos du Mesnil Champagne is produced from a walled property comprising 1.85 acres.

    Bollinger’s “Vieilles Vignes Françaises” Champagne (made from Pinot Noir vines that have never been grafted onto American roots) is produced from a walled property comprising 36 acres.

    Petrus is located on top of a 49-acre island mound, whose topsoil and the subsoil consists of a high percentage of iron-rich clay that differs from neighboring vineyards.

    . . . to single out just a few of the wine considered “best of class.”

    By contrast, one can put forward Penfolds Grange. Citing Wikipedia:

    “Unlike most expensive cult wines from the Old World which are from single vineyards or even small plots (called blocks) within vineyards, Grange is made from grapes harvested over a wide area. [Miles separating discrete vineyards and their specific grape varieties. — Bob] This means that the precise composition of the wine changes from year to year; it is the expertise of the winemakers which purchasers value, rather than the qualities of the specific places where the grapes are grown, or the particular vines.”

    Steve, hark back to your blog comments about the 2011 vintage North Coast Pinots exhibiting mildew.

    Hark back to the 2008 Anderson Valley Pinots exhibiting forest fire “smoke taint.”

    For some winemakers, blending them with wine sourced from other unaffected regions rescued a dire vintage.

  13. From my point of view, I remain respectful of blending as a powerful tool, but making single vineyard wines is thrilling due to the exposure, dangling on the edge without cover

  14. I suppose this discussion ultimately hinges on one’s definition of “better”. If I had the option of receiving a flawless gemstone that was manufactured in a laboratory, or a somewhat flawed version that reflected a complex multimillion-year history of crytallization, tectonics, uplift, and erosion, I’d take the latter. I once sampled a wine that the winemaker (a scientist/engineer by training) proudly proclaimed was sourced from 13 vineyards spread out over an enormous area. It took all of his skills, he proclaimed, to sleuth out the precise combination of vineyards to achieve this masterpiece. I had absolutely had no desire to purchase that wine, regardless of its flavor.

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