Interview: The Major Role of Minor Grapes

In a recent conversation with my colleague , Eric Baugher of Ridge confessed, “Carignan is my favorite of the blending grapes. It’s just fantastic. High acid, elegant tannins, lots of bramble fruit, even some plum—gorgeous flavors. It really has a lot of Zinfandel-like qualities, so the two of them together reinforce the effect on the palate.”

They had been speaking of the “mixed blacks” field blends of California, a historic style of wine that Ridge continues to honor. During Prohibition, the popularity of home winemaking saw virtually all the vineyards of California replaced with a handful of varieties, namely Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Carignan, Mourvèdre, and Alicante Bouschet. These hearty cultivars were well suited to the long cross-country train trip that brought them to the various basements and bathtubs of Boston, Miami, and elsewhere.

Today, Zinfandel tends to take the lead, but each of the accessory grapes contributes its own special something to the blend. The ratio of these varieties depends both on the intended style of the final wine and on the specific climatic conditions of the vineyard site. “Lytton Springs is our one vineyard that heavily relies on Petite Sirah,” Baugher explained. “It brings in the darker berry fruit and velvety tannins.” Geyserville, another of Ridge’s famous vineyard sources, is also located in Sonoma, and yet it is planted to a different mix. “At Geyserville, [Petite Sirah] is generally the third blending grape on the list. It’s tough to grow there—it’s not warm enough.”

Ridge also continues to work with Alicante Bouschet and Mourvèdre, which they refer to as Mataro. “Alicante Bouschet . . . is a teinturier variety, so the main use of it is for color, especially in a Zinfandel. Zinfandel is thin-skinned. It doesn’t make very dark, saturated wine, so you are reliant on Alicante to fill that void. But beyond just the color aspects of it, it’s also a really dense variety—the flavors are dark, very saturated, kind of boysenberry-like. At least the Alicante that’s coming out of Pagani Ranch also comes with really high acid and big tannins, so it brings a lot of great concentration to Zinfandel.” Regarding Mataro, he comments, “It’s thick-skinned, so it’s going to give you some good color as a wine and some really nice, rich skin phenols and a more earthy aspect of fruit. It’s a difficult grape to ripen because it ripens way out there toward the end of the Zinfandel harvest. So if you are facing tough weather in that year, that Mataro may not even fully ripen and be green [in] character. But fully ripe Mataro is beautiful—red fruit, a tarry earthiness, and some Christmas spice.”

Such wines are considered a classic representation of California’s past, but the history of complex blends—both in the bottle and in the vineyard—extends back to the very earliest days of viticulture, not just in California but around the world. Indeed, the dominance of single-variety wines is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Collectively, we took a step toward single-variety wines when phylloxera swept the globe in the second half of the 1800s. In many areas, this led to a winnowing of diversity as wine regions retrained their focus and adjusted to life on rootstocks. A century later, single-variety wines became the norm for the New World, and as they rose in popularity, some in the Old World paid attention. Though the vast majority of Europe’s wines are labeled according to region, it is now not uncommon to see the word Riesling on the front of a German label, or Nebbiolo on a wine from Piedmont.

Interestingly, “red blends,” especially those made in a slightly off-dry style, continue to be a big seller in the United States. But as they tend to be sold at lower price points, the category’s reputation has become somewhat diminished. Though some premium blends (Bordeaux, Champagne, GSM) have maintained their pedigree, most of today’s finest wines seem to be monovarietal—or, at the very least, are marketed that way. Even historically minded Ridge sells most of its blends as Zinfandel.

But this might be shifting. First of all, climate change is making a pretty strong case for the practical nature of blends. Planting a range of varieties that feature different bloom dates, degrees of cold-hardiness, drought tolerance, and chemical compositions can be thought of as a kind of insurance policy against erratic weather patterns. Furthermore, a new generation of wine drinkers is coming into its own and seems fairly disinterested in the “rules.” Certainly, if blue wine can emerge as a category, then anything is possible.

To get a clearer picture of current trends in and strategies of blending, I interviewed four winemakers from various corners of the globe. The participants are Brad Hickey, Proprietor and Winemaker of Brash Higgins in McLaren Vale; Pierre Graffeuille, General Manager of Château Léoville Las Cases, Clos du Marquis, Château Nénin, and Château Potensac in Bordeaux; Jason Haas, General Manager of Tablas Creek in Paso Robles; and Axel Heinz, Winemaker and Estate Director for Ornellaia and Masseto in Tuscany.

Clockwise from top left: Jason Haas, Pierre Graffeuille, Brad Hickey, and Axel Heinz.

Kelli White: Of all the varieties you work with, which would you consider major and which would you consider minor? Why?

Brad Hickey: We make around 14 wines, but I consider Chenin, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Grenache to be major, predominantly because they are benchmark grapes from all the major wine regions in the world. The minor grapes are more esoteric, like Zibibbo, Cinsault, Carignan, and Nero d’Avola. They are on the upswing, however, due to their appropriateness for our ever-warming South Australian climate.

Pierre Graffeuille: For us, the minor grape variety could be the Cabernet Franc, but only in terms of quantity, as it plays a major part in the identity of our blend, on both the Right and Left Bank. On the other hand, [there is] Petit Verdot—the last parcel of this really minor grape variety was pulled out by 2002. We decided to regraft all our Petit Verdot to Cabernet Sauvignon as [the Petit Verdot was] intensely powerful but definitely more rustic than our Cabernet Sauvignon. We don’t need more concentration in our blends, so the Petit Verdot was not complementary to the Cabernet Sauvignon. The Cabernet Franc is complementary and adds complexity and refinement.

Jason Haas: In the world of the Rhone Rangers grapes, on the red side, the major grapes are Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre, though it’s pretty clear that in the Northern Rhône, Syrah is the only major player, and in the south, Grenache is pretty much the only major player. That makes minor grapes out of Counoise and Terret Noir. On the white side, there’s less of a well-established model, but it seems pretty clear that Viognier and Roussanne are major grapes, Marsanne and Grenache Blanc are maybes, and Picpoul Blanc, Clairette, and Picardan are definitely minor. I think that what makes a grape a major grape is that it has developed the reputation over time of being able to lead a blend. Of course, what is major and what is minor depends on where you are, which complicates things. Is Syrah a major grape? Sure. Is it in the Southern Rhône? I would say no. But my baseline idea is that major grapes are going to frequently play a primary role in a wine from a given region.

Axel Heinz: When it comes to the reds, the major grape varieties would unquestionably be Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, to which I would also add Cabernet Franc, although it covers only 12% of our acreage. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which are a classic combination, constitute the frame of the Ornellaia blend. The right proportion between the two will give a wine that combines rich cassis fruit [and] a tightly wound tannic structure with just enough softness to counterbalance it. Cabernet Franc, when it is of the highest quality, creates the perfect link between the two, adding its complex aromatics and its silky texture to make a more layered and interesting wine. Petit Verdot would be the minor variety. Its character can be overly tannic and rustic when used in large proportions.

For the whites at Ornellaia, I would consider Sauvignon Blanc the only major grape variety, regularly yielding the most complex and consistent wines. The minor ones would be Vermentino and Viognier, which add a more Mediterranean touch to the whole.

Kelli: What specific qualities do these minor varieties bring to the blend?

Brad: In blended wines, the minors can offer savory notes or lighten up heavier reds. For example, the Cinsault in our Mataro/Cinsault/Carignan field blend adds cherry and rosehip flavors to the peppery, meaty qualities of the whole-bunch Mataro and acidity of young-vine Carignan. It gives the wine an elegance and a prettiness; without it, I think the wine would be too rustic and hard. They offer valuable elements or top notes to wider blends.

Pierre: The Cabernet Franc is extremely important in the construction of our blends. It conveys elegance, nobleness, and fullness, more specifically in vintages such as 2018, when it was harvested at perfect maturity. It remains a perfect match for balancing powerful Cabernet Sauvignon.

Jason: It depends on the grape and the blend, but in general, with Rhône varieties, the major grapes (Syrah or Grenache on the red side, or Viognier or Roussanne on the white side) are grapes of power, density, and richness. The minor grapes bring freshness and lift, help mitigate the major grapes’ tendency toward excess weight and alcohol, and bring out minerality.

Axel: When it is ripe enough and used in the right amount (which means not too much), [Petit Verdot] adds mid-palate density and structure to the blend. It is really like a dash of salt and pepper, which enhance the flavor of a dish, but you don’t want them to stick out and be clearly noticeable.

Kelli: How do you approach the process of blending each year?

Brad: I co-ferment all our blends from grapes grown on the same vineyard. This way, the finished wine is harmonious, like marinating in cooking, and offers a snapshot of a specific vineyard each year. Since we don’t acidify our wines, normally one part of a blend is less ripe than another and will naturally add acidity to the finished wine. Riesling/Sémillon planted in a sandy ancient river bank combines the lime and zest of Riesling with 30% [of the] richer bass note of Sémillon.

I co-ferment our Grenache, which is typically a little too confectionary on its own for my liking, with 30% whole-bunch Mataro to add a savoriness and spice to the blend. Bench trials are extremely boring. I’d rather take a risk by getting the proportions right and co-fermenting from the get-go, keeping the wine vibrant, and the blend becomes a fusion of the varieties rather than blended later. 

Pierre: Each year is like starting over again, although our wines are always thought to remain faithful to our terroir and the previous vintages. We taste blind each and every batch several times, then define the final blend. What is rather unique with our wine is that the final blend is determined by mid-December, just before transferring into barrels. So the percentage of each grape variety can, of course, be variable. In the end, only the result counts.

Jason: We have a specific process, where we begin by tasting all the lots of a given variety, lot by lot in flights, blind, and giving those lots grades. Once we’ve identified the top lots, we start blending our top wines (typically the Esprit de Tablas and Esprit de Tablas Blanc) from those lots, brainstorming ideas based on what the vintage reminds us of and how we feel we can best emphasize our favorite aspects of what we’ve been tasting. Then, once we’ve identified the lots that will go into that wine, we set them aside and look at the next wine down in our hierarchy. Each blend we make has a different lead grape and a different idea behind it, so that while the blend will change each year, we’re working to bring out a particular personality that this wine will have, year in and year out.

Axel: The most important thing is to avoid reproducing a formula—that is, the exact same percentage of grape varieties from one year to the other. It is crucial to have a clear idea of what the final blend is supposed to taste like, always have a kind of “ideal” version of your wine in mind, and try to get as close to that within the limits of the vintage. Blending is a constant surprise anyway; you can never know how different wines will match together unless you have tried [it] out. Blending is not arithmetic: one plus one does not necessarily make two. They can stay one, but can also make three.

Kelli: Is a blend necessarily more complex than a varietal wine?

Brad: I think a blend is more complex, yes, but it’s also that same complexity that many drinkers wish to avoid by ordering single-grape wines. Those wines, like Cabernet Sauvignon, are ones that they can wrap their heads around more easily. Blends sometimes are considered cheating a bit, as if you can’t get the wine you want out of a single grape, or perhaps that you had extra fruit you didn’t know what to do with. 

Pierre: Of course! Each grape variety brings its specificities, its characteristics, at the same time adding extra layers of complexity and melding with the other grape varieties. Further, the aging potential [is] already different from one variety to another [and] may be impacted by the varying weather conditions of each vintage.

Jason: I think it usually is, at least with Rhône varieties, but I’m sure that statement would be controversial. I think of this like a rock band. Can you get something cool from getting five guitarists all on stage at once? Absolutely. But do any of the guitars provide the thump of the bass or the rhythm of drums? Probably not.

Axel: This really depends on the variety. Riesling and Pinot Noir have such a hugely complex flavor profile that they can stay on their own. Most other grapes don’t have this capacity, unless they come from a truly exceptional vineyard site. In that case, a blend certainly creates a more complex wine. The blend can be of different grapes but can also be a blend of the same variety from different terroirs (think of Chave maintaining the old tradition of blending the different sections of Hermitage in one single blend). This is something we do, for example, with Masseto, which is Merlot wine blended out of the different sections of its vineyard.

Kelli: Are blends more important in marginal climates, where ripening might be less consistent?

Brad: Most definitely. You can see how Burgundy struggles during tough years since it all mostly rests on Pinot and Chard. They don’t have an option to blend, for the most part, where Bordeaux or Champagne can play around a bit. For us, being a Mediterranean clime, everything will get ripe. Nero d’Avola will make consistently strong wines since it doesn’t buckle under heat or drought, where Shiraz can sometimes shut down in intense heat. 

Pierre: Not necessarily. It all depends on viticultural practices, vinification processes, and, above all, the winemaking philosophy. Of course, to a certain extent, it helps to maintain consistency throughout different vintages, yet at the same time it is more complicated to produce a well-balanced wine if the various varieties composing the blend are not as ripe as we would have expected.

Jason: I don’t think so. I don’t think of blending as a way of salvaging something drinkable out of what would otherwise have been a disaster. Back to my rock band analogy, I feel it’s more that each element brings something that complements the other components and makes something that none of them could have been on their own.

Axel: Certainly yes, a blend is like a safe bet in which you can rely on several grape varieties, out of which one, at least, is going to perform well in a particular vintage.

Kelli: Has there ever been a specific instance in which, due to the conditions of a specific vintage, the presence of a minor blending grape saved the day?

Pierre: Cabernet Franc has never been in the dramatic position to “save the day.” However, more specifically, when considering our wines from the Château Nénin, in the Pomerol AOC, the Cabernet Franc is the other grape variety balancing the always-dominant Merlot. In dry and ripe vintages such as 2015, 2016, or 2018, the freshness of the Cabernet Franc was particularly well received.

Jason: That would be overstating the case. But I have very clear memories of the first time that we got Picpoul Blanc into production in 2004. We’d been blending our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (which was and is mostly Roussanne and Grenache Blanc) with a touch of Viognier to bring a little floral lift, and we tried side-by-side test blends of the 2004 Esprit Blanc with 5% Viognier and 5% Picpoul Blanc. The degree to which the Picpoul activated a mineral note in the wine, while still providing that little hint of white flowers, was dramatic and memorable.

Axel: This happened with Ornellaia 2014, which has an unusually high proportion of Petit Verdot. The wines in general were lacking a bit of power and structure and could benefit from Petit Verdot. The problem is that usually the vintages in which you would need Petit Verdot most are the ones where it doesn’t fully ripen. For whatever reason, in 2014, the Petit Verdot we had was just great, although the vintage was so cool and late ripening.

Kelli: Is there a particular minor variety you work with that you think has the potential to graduate to “major” status in the future? Which one and why?

Brad: Nero d’Avola, which we grow organically on our vineyard. We were the first to plant it in 2009, and now there are close to 25 different growers that have planted it. It’s delicious drinking, with great natural acidity, drought and heat tolerance, and adaptability to different soil types. We pick it early to keep it lower alcohol and ferment it on skins in amphora for six months to keep the vineyard firmly focused as the star. The wine has all the black cherry fruit you’d expect with the slight bitterness of Campari, a Negroni, or aromatic bitters. It’s really tasty. 

Mataro also is perfectly situated in this climate and is typically more savory than straight Shiraz or Grenache—and downright delicious. It will need to battle Shiraz, which is still number one, but has all the right components to thrive here: thick skins and seed pack, ripens late, and likes it hot. 

Pierre: The Cabernet Franc is a grape variety we are extremely proud of. Despite its “minor” position due to its volume produced, we really do consider it as a determining and essential part of our wine.

Jason: I think that Mourvèdre and Grenache Blanc are both well on their way to making that transition, in part because of what each can bring to the table in Paso Robles. The cooler nights and longer growing season here allow both to stay on the vines longer, to pick up more character, and to have both intensity and balance. As for the truly trace varieties, maybe Picpoul Blanc. What we’re making is a lot more intense and serious than most of what’s from the south of France. Whether that’s because we have the luxury of waiting on it longer, or because we know we’re going to be selling it for a higher price than they can in Pinet and therefore can invest in lower yields and higher-level farming, I’m not sure. But I think it has the potential to be great.

Axel: For the whites, I would like to see Vermentino play a bigger role. It is a good partner to Sauvignon, giving a touch of fat and floral character to the wine, but we need to explore if it is possible to make an ageworthy and truly complex wine with it on the Tuscan coast.

Kelli: Is there a marketing or sales advantage to advertising blends? Or is the benefit purely in terms of wine quality? 

Brad: I still think single-variety wines get all the attention. Blends are considered to be a little bit less serious in the New World. There is a sales advantage when the blend is truly delicious, however, and better than the sum of its parts. I think the “R/SM” Riesling and Sémillon blend we make is special and unique. It has taken a few years for people to get to know it. Neither a straight Riesling or Sémillon would sell easily on its own from the Vale—the Hunter is Sémillon country and Riesling does much better in the Clare—but as an ensemble, it now has a following. Granted, we only make around 100 cases! The wine feels coastal, which is nice since we live on the ocean. It drinks like a Margarita, and that alone will sell itself. We can market it that way as a cocktail, which helps the waitstaff or bottle shop explain and sell the wine, and it’s delicious. And we’re the only ones making it. So it’s a win/win. And if it didn’t sell, that’s okay—there’s not a lot of it, so we would happily drink it ourselves.

Pierre: Advertising blends can indeed convey great marketing advantage, but it all depends on which market and consumers you are considering. It can play a major part when it comes to consumers willing to expand their knowledge after having entered the world of wine through the varietal gate. Otherwise, communicating (or not) about blends can prove to be useful, depending on the region.

Jason: For a long time, there was a disadvantage. I feel like that’s mostly gone. But I’m not sure there’s much of an advantage, except that what you’re making isn’t really a commodity that’s part of a category anymore. Someone can choose another Grenache or Mourvèdre if they like ours, but I think it’s a little harder for someone who loves our Esprit de Tablas to find an equivalent. That said, this isn’t at all why we’re doing it. It’s because we really do think that the blends that we make are the best expressions of our place, our grapes, and our philosophy.

Axel: I would tend to think the opposite. With Burgundy’s popularity I sometimes feel that the idea of a single variety from one single vineyard site is being considered as the holy grail of winemaking these days. The fact of blending depends on the nature of the grape varieties (the Bordeaux grapes usually always fare better in a blend) and local traditions rather than on marketing.

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity. Thanks to Brad, Pierre, Jason, and Axel for sharing their perspectives and insights!

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