Tag Archives: red wine blends

Grape of the Week: Syrah/Shiraz


Syrah, UC Davis

Since we made a virtual visit to the Rhône last week, with Viognier, we may as well stay in the neighborhood and check out the most important red grape in the region, Syrah, AKA Shiraz.

What to expect
How about a little intensity?  Expect deep, rich, concentrated flavors – nearly black in color – with spice and tannin to spare! The best will still show beautifully 20 years down the road.

Where Pinot Noir is the seductive “gateway” red, Syrah is for the convicted red-wine lover. The exception is the high production/low-end fruity, somewhat sweet versions that come from Australia. But just as White Zin isn’t representative of the best of California’s Zinfandel, these big-box store bargains don’t tell the whole story for Australia. They also produce some magnificent examples! Penfold’s Grange, for instance.

Of course, Shiraz is the name they use for Syrah in Australia. And, don’t let them hear you say “Shih-RAHZ!” They’re quite definite that it’s pronounced “Shih-RAZZ.” Continue reading


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Grape of the Week: Merlot


Since we started out with the King of Grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon, it seems only proper to follow up with Cab’s good buddy, Merlot.

The Biggest Question
One of the most common questions I hear at seminars and classes is “What’s the difference between Cabernet and Merlot?” It’s a good question, too, because even winemakers often mix up the two in blind tastings. Perhaps that’s the reason they blend so well – they’re similar.

The most important difference is that Merlot is thin skinned, compared to Cabernet, and slightly plumper, so it can be lighter in color and body (the grape skins are the source of all the color and most of the flavor, texture and tannin in red wine.) And, it’s less tannic, which translates to early drinking enjoyment, right? Merlot often shows red fruit intermingled with black, where Cab is firmly in black territory. And, it’s a bit more herbaceous and leaves a fleshy impression where Cabernet comes off as more structured (tannic) and austere. I love Jancis Robinson’s characterization of Merlot as “Cabernet without the pain.”

The Impact of Sideways: Many blame this comedy (if you have ever toured wine country this movie is a must – my summary is “Two men behaving badly.”) for transforming Merlot from being the “it” red to a fifth wheel. But, what the lead character, Miles, forgot is that Merlot has been making great wine for centuries! In fact, Chateau Pétrus, a great Bordeaux that is consistently one of the world’s most expensive wines, is – you guessed it – Merlot. It runs around $1000.00/bottle these days.

TRIVIA! The most expensive wine ever sold is a bottle of 1787 Chateau Lafite – a first growth from the Medoc). It went for $160,000 at a Christie’s auction in 1985. Thomas Jefferson’s initials, etched on the glass, added immeasurably to its value.   Continue reading

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What is a Meritage Wine?


Question from Meredith: What is a meritage wine?

Reply: Hi, Meredith. Thanks for writing. A Meritage wine is an American-made (so far), Bordeaux-style blend. And, what’s a Bordeaux blend? It’s a blend made from grapes that come from Bordeaux and these are some very well-known varieties, indeed: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Sauvignon Blanc. And also some varieties that aren’t so well known such as Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Carmenere and Semillon. And, some truly obscure varieties: St. Macaire, Gros Verdot (red) and Muscadelle du Bordolais(white). The producer can make a red Meritage or a white one.

So, those are the permitted varieties for the blend and the blend rule is that it must include at least two of these varieties and no single variety should make up more than 90% of the blend. 
Do we need this complication in our lives? Probably not, but here’s why the Meritage Alliance came about. After the repeal of Prohibition some truly yucky wines with European regional names like Rhine Wine and Chianti were made in the US and offered for sale. This was misleading and the producers of the real thing, in Europe, weren’t too happy. 

Varietal wine, which is wine based on a dominant variety, came into fashion and also became the benchmark for quality wine in the US. The Federal varietal requirement is a minimum of 75% of the grape named on the label.  Continue reading

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Today’s Wine Word: Field Blend


Will you look at the color and size of these things? I was taking  one of my favorite walks, by a who knows how old vineyard, and spotted these crazy-looking, neon grapes.

Could it be that I’ve laid my eyes on Flame Tokay grapes, in person, for the first time of my life?

And look at the vine’s next-door neighbor. Nice, normal looking black clusters. Could be Zinfandel, Grenache, Carignan, Petite Sirah, Barbera, Alicante Bouchet… Who knows? It’s a field blend.

In the first wine boom in California (late 1800s) there was a great deal of Italian influence and many of the grower/producers were inclined to plant several compatible varieties all together. They’d harvest and vinify them all together, too, so the blend was pre-made.

Since different varieties ripen at different rates, they’d end up with less mature fruit in the mix, which would keep the acidity lively and very ripe fruit, too, for rich fruity flavor, and everything in between. And they knew that including a little Barbera in the vineyard would also bolster acidity, where if they wanted more structure, Petite Sirah was the go-to grape. This choir of different varietal aromas and flavors coming together provided a kind of instant complexity and natural balance. Continue reading

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Q & A: What’s a Bordeaux Blend?

Question from Eleanor: What’s a Bordeaux Blend? 

Reply: Thanks for writing, Eleanor! If you’ve heard of a Meritage (pronounced like “heritage” – it isn’t a French term), it’s the same thing. It’s a blend made of a mix of grapes that came to America from Bordeaux. These are the big five: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. It’s almost always red, but the best known white Bordeaux varieties are Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc.

If you’ve ever purchased a red Bordeaux, you’ve probably noticed that there’s no mention of the grape varieties. The French regulate which varieties can be used for commercial production for each region. Commit this to memory and it will be easier to buy your Bordeaux: We usually break down the wines by referring to them as right bank or left bank (the banks of the Gironde River that flows through Bordeaux).  The Left Bank, also called Medoc, is dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon and for the Right Bank (Pomerol, St. Emilion), Merlot takes the lead. With a few exceptions, the other varieties are used in very small quantities.  

Each variety contributes something a little different to the blend. Conventional wisdom:

Cabernet Sauvignon: Power, black fruit and structure
Merlot: Softer, fleshier, red fruit mixed in with the black
Cabernet Franc: Herbaceous, adds perfume, not too tannic
Malbec: Dark pigment, adds a sense of bigness
Petit Verdot: Very deeply colored, pumps up the volume, black fruit, spice Continue reading


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