Blends: From the field to the cellar, the winemakers touch

Dominic Mantei
The Cellar Back Door
Dominic Mantei
Kevin Mantei |

Blends are nothing new to the wine world. In fact, California winemakers transitioned the world’s focus of blended wines to varietal wines in the ‘70s. The world took notice and varietal wines have taken center stage on many global fronts ever since.

So are California winemakers still making blends like the traditional wines of Europe? Well, yes and no.

California winemakers, in general, like to push the limits and redefine great wine — and wine drinkers have responded. It is very common to see Zinfandel, Bordeaux, Rhone, Petite Sirah and Syrah blends with just about anything. In California, Zinfandel and Petite Sirah are blended to many different but traditional global blend styles to give a true California flare. For example, it is not uncommon to find Zinfandel in the mix of a California Rhone Blend. This liberal hand of the winemaker rocks tradition and keeps a steady progression toward defining what California wine is and will become.

Small and large wineries have gained traction with selling blends in the full spectrum of price points and tiers. Micheal-David Winery in Lodi is a large producer responsible for many well-known wines available throughout the world. The four blends they produce, Freakshow, Incognito, 7 Deadly Reds, and Don’s Blend comprise 15 percent of their total production. Micheal-David Winery winemaker Jeff Farthing states, “wine consumers across all generations collectively are more knowledgeable and adventurous than ever before, which naturally supports the idea of wine blends as an option to varietal wines,” as a reason for their success with blends.

Throughout the Sierra foothills region, and many other regions, you will find small producers making blends that showcase the terroir and artistry required to make an exceptional wine. Many of these producers only sell their product directly to their visitors, so finding them requires exploring new regions off the traditional most well known courses.

One example of this is Chateau Davell in El Dorado County, which produces 1600 cases and sells directly through their tasting room in Apple Hill, a few hundred feet off U.S. 50. Their Augustus Super Tuscan Blend ($34) was made with food in mind and inspired by their organic heirloom tomato garden. (See factbox for review.)

Just down the street is Illuminare Winery, where winemaker/owner Aaron Hill shares his 2013 Momentum blend with his customers. This is Aaron’s top tier wine at $30. It is 45 percent Petite Sirah which gives Momentum its dark color, structure and age-ability. The wine possesses enough richness to make it fruit driven and drinkable with enough tannin to make it stand out from his other wines — it is weighty, deep and complex.

From my perspective, I see continued growth in the future of the blends segment of the wine market. Varietal wines will forever have their place showcasing the uniqueness of terroir and varietals, but blends will continue to provide a fresh and new look for adventurous wine drinkers that appreciate the winemaker’s touch.

I currently make nine different blends for Everhart Cellars in the American River Valley of El Dorado County. Compared to Michael-Davids 15 percent, this comprises 40 percent of the winery’s total production where they have found a niche in offering specialized proprietary blends. Three wines are made in the traditional method of field blending, where different grape varieties are picked at the same time, crushed and fermented together (co-fermented).

This is an old world style of winemaking that makes wines of exceptional character and shows authenticity for the land and grapes planted there, with minimal handling by the winemaker. If blends are of an interest, check out the Ryker Red Rhone Blend, Bella Lynda Italian Blend and Romantique Harmony Bordeaux Blend at Everhart Cellars and taste for yourself.

Dominic Mantei has been a winemaker in the Sierra foothills of California for over 20 years. He is a Fresno State graduate in enology and viticulture. He currently serves as a winemaking consultant in El Dorado, Amador, Placer and Calaveras Counties. He resides in Coloma in the American River Valley of El Dorado County with his wife and three kids, a golden retriever, three chickens and three pigs.

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