subscribe: Posts | Comments      Facebook      Email Steve

Blend or single vineyard? It depends on the variety



Sauvignon Blanc is one of those grape varieties that seems to benefit from judicious blending from multiple sources in California. Cool-climate Sauvignon Blanc can be audacious and savory in gooseberries, with a touch of pyrazine that can be too green for many people. Warm-climate Sauvignon can have delicious tropical fruit flavors but be a little candied. Either, by itself, can have limitations, especially in an off-vintage; but blending them together seems to smooth out the divots. While it’s true that some of my highest-scoring Sauvignon Blancs ever were Mondavi Tokalons, this is a rare exception in California; Sauvignon Blanc in our state veers towards the ordinary, and it takes some great grape sourcing and careful blending to come up with a serious wine.

Pinot Noir, on the other hand, is considerably more interesting as a single-vineyard wine. I’m not sure why, other than to trot out the usual theories of site-specificity, thinner skins and terroir transparency. Perhaps psychically we’re more forgiving to a slightly flawed Pinot Noir from a vineyard. I used to wonder why a great Pinot Noir couldn’t be a blend of, say, Santa Rita Hills and Anderson Valley. It can in theory, of course, but while I’ve experienced many, many very beautiful blended Pinot Noirs, the wine always seems more interesting and complex when the grapes are from a single vineyard.

Then there’s Cabernet Sauvignon. I’m tempted to say it, too, wants to be from a single vineyard, but there are so many interesting, great Cabs that break that rule. I, personally, am a huge fan of Cardinale, which is a blend of various vineyards in Napa Valley. Yes, I work for Jackson Family Wines, but I didn’t when I gave the 2006 100 points, and I’ve never had a Cardinale I didn’t find dazzling. So I can’t say that Cabernet has to be from a single vineyard to be world class.

I think Zinfandel is probably best as a vineyard-designate, although it has to be a super-great vineyard, well-tended, and, if possible, old vines. As for Chardonnay, I’m divided on that one. It’s such a winemaker’s wine (barrels, malo, lees) that the sourcing doesn’t seem like it should matter, as long as it’s from a cool climate. And yet, as I look over my Wine Enthusiast reviews, I notice that my highest Chardonnay scores were reserved for single vineyard wines: Failla 2010 estate, Williams Selyem 2010 Allen Vineyard, Rochioli 2010 South River Vineyard, Dutton-Goldfield 2010 Dutton Ranch Rued Vineyard, Ramey 2012 Ritchie Vineyard, Flowers 2011 Moon Select, Shafer 2009 Red Shoulder Ranch.

There’s something intellectual about a single-vineyard wine, especially if you’ve been to the vineyard, walked it, had it explained to you by the winemaker or grapegrower. The Allen Vineyard, for instance, is such a distinctive place; every time I have an Allen Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, I imagine that particular place, the slight slope, the vineyard tucked up against the hills to the west, Westwide Road on the east, and the Russian River just on the other side of Rochioli. It’s a “sweet spot,” midway between the chill of the southern valley and the warmth of Dry Creek Valley, a lovely corner of the Russian River Valley that I hope will someday be appellated as The Middle Reach.

The market, of course, rewards single-vineyard wines. I can’t prove it with data, but I bet if someone crunched the numbers, they’d find that single-vineyard wines are more expensive, on average, than blended wines. I think that a winery that produces a single-vineyard wine as a very special bottling, superior in their view to their blended wines, is in the catbird’s seat, but you can’t simply assume that a vineyard-designated wine has special properties. I’ve had plenty of sad vineyard-designated wines; some have been horrible. So you never know; you have to taste the wine. Consumers want assurances, but there are none in wine. Every rule has an exception.

  1. Vineyards have good parts and less-good parts. The good parts end up going in the vineyard designate because the market will pay more for those, and the less good parts end up going into the AVA blends. It’s that simple. And, of course, the mere fact that it is a vineyard designate gives it intellectual and emotional pull that just makes you look for more stuff you like.

    I can’t think of one reason why a single vineyard wine would taste better than a blend. You can’t claim site-specificity is a measure because you just create a tautology where the vineyard designate always wins, even if it tastes like poop (the bad kind of poop; not the good kind).

    I was trying to think which wineries save their good stuff for blends… I immediately though of Kosta Browne’s 4 Barrel. A quick check on Wine Spectator and, indeed, that blend consistently outscores the vineyard designates.

  2. Bob Henry says:

    Michael writes:

    “I can’t think of one reason why a single vineyard wine would taste better than a blend.”

    Tell that to Aubert de Villaine at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.

    Each DRC property wine’s aroma and mouthfeel and taste is slightly different from its siblings. And each one commands a different selling price in the marketplace.

    [Steve experienced it himself and blogged about it here:

    The soil and its microbes, the grape variety clone, the age of the vines, the rootstock, the trellising system, canopy management techniques, the vineyard orientation to the sun over the arc of the day, whether the vineyard is dry farmed or irrigated, embraces organic or biodynamic practices, et cetera all affect the end result.

  3. Bob Henry says:

    Second example: Heitz Cellars “Martha’s Vineyard” Cabernet versus Joe’s “Napa Valley” bottling.

    As he explained in Robert Benson’s winemaker interview book, Joe gave credit where credit was due to single vineyards (e.g., Martha’s, Fay) sourced for his Cabernets.

    (And then there is this just-learned detail: Joe didn’t put his Cabs through malolactic fermentation:

  4. Michael Brill, here’s another example: MacPhail’s Vagon Rouge, and often, The Flyer, blends that allows James to create something special that often is found more interesting and pleasing than some of the DV’s….

Leave a Reply


Recent Comments

Recent Posts