Allow me a moment of nostalgia.
I was speaking to a group of new freshmen at the institution of higher learning that funds my wine habit. As part of answering a question, I came out, for some reason, with, "You got your peanut butter in my chocolate…"
No one batted an eye. They had no clue. An entire generation of college students raised without "two great tastes that taste great together."
(Honestly, I don't remember the exact context -- and the Sweet Partner in Crime can attest that such a thing is fairly common.)
After the "jeez, you're getting' old" bell stopped ringing much later that evening, I decided to drown my sorrows a bit -- and what better way to honor that little piece of popular culture than with wines based on a similar principle.
Blending wines made from different grapes is almost as old as winemaking itself. Someone realized early on that proper proportions of different varietals greatly improve a wine's overall flavor. For instance, many cabernet sauvignons are bottled after being mixed with a touch of cabernet franc. This blend takes the edge off the tannin and brightens the fruit. Some wine growing areas even have laws requiring wines to be blended.
The French refer to a blended wine as a "cuvée." Literally translated, "cuvée" means "vat" -- which makes sense if you think about it. Cuvées were initially cheap table wine. The term has broadened significantly. Wine growers in Bordeaux and the Rhone valley specialize in cuvées. Practically all the wines from these regions, from inexpensive bistro wine to expensive first growth Bordeaux, are cuvées. Heck, Chateauneuf-de-Pape (a famous Rhone wine) is a blend of up to 13 different grapes!
American wine growers wanted to get in on the act. However, the growers couldn't call their wines "Bordeaux," obviously, and ATF regulations required a wine to be at least 75% of a single grape to be officially "named." If it wasn't 75%, it had to be labeled "table wine," which was unfortunate, considering the quality. In 1988, some California wine growers made up the term "Meritage" for blends of California grapes made in the style of French wine.
Meritage was the standard term for a bit -- but the growers discovered that few among the "normal" wine drinkers knew what the heck it meant. Then came the "Proprietary Blend" -- which basically meant that they'd put whatever they wanted in it. This was followed by "Rhone style" to add an element of gravitas. Finally, as with most things, we've come full circle. Many better American wineries are releasing "cuvees." In France, Georges DuBeouf has started making surprisingly decent blends out of leftover grapes -- called "Cuvée Blanc" and "Cuvée Rouge." Go figure.
Blended wines can be hit or miss. If the proportions are off, then the wine can end up a weak, flabby mess -- especially inexpensive blends. There are, however, many meritages with merit:
Oakley 2005 fourWHITES -- "It's very pretty," announced the Sweet Partner in Crime. This blend from Cline Cellars combines Gewurztraminer, Palomino (the grape from which sherry is made), Viognier, and Malvasia. I've never heard of that last grape. Honey and flowers on the nose like a viognier, a little of that sherry bite with the peach and citrus flavor, and a finish with a pepper like gewürztraminer. This one would be absolutely scrumptious with a salad with some mandarin oranges or something like bruschetta with fresh garden tomatoes and some balsamic vinegar. A steal at $7-9.
Toad Hollow "Erik's the Red" Proprietary Blend -- You want to talk about a serious blend? This wine has eighteen different grapes in the mix. It doesn't exactly follow any specific style -- rather, it's simply a tasty, full red. This wine has plenty of nice, deep flavors. Big dark fruit on the nose, coupled with a little of that Russian River valley boldness. The taste is soft and full of blackberries. The finish is long and fruity. While not very tannic, it's got enough muscle to hold up against some pretty hefty food pairings. It would go pretty well with a prime rib, I'd imagine -- but it's a really scrumptious companion for some dark chocolate. A good, solid, kick-back-and drink wine. $11-13.
Rosenblum Chateau La Paws 2005 Cote du Bone Roan -- One of my favorite French wines is Cotes-du-Rhone. The occasional problem with a CDR is that the earthy character of the wine often overwhelms the fruit, leaving it tasting flat. Rosenblum Cellars, known best for their Zinfandels, decided to do the Sonoma Twist with a Rhone style wine. They blended some of their Zinfandel with some of the traditional grapes of CDR (Syrah, Carignane, Mourvedre). The addition of Zinfandel creates an interesting nice balance -- a fruity wine with an earthy "backbone." The nose is plummy and spicy. It's a very big wine, as you'd probably expect. Lots more plum and smoke flavors. The finish has enough tannin to make it interesting, instead of trailing off into alcohol as many Zins do. We cracked this one simply by chance when we grilled up some marinated ostrich steaks with this. Yum! Simply put, this was one of the best grill pairings I've had in a long time. A filet mignon would also be scrumptious here. Give it a try. You won't be disappointed. $10-13.