One of the joys of attending the Wine Bloggers Conference, held this year in Lodi, California, is to attend keynotes and workshops to share and increase wine knowledge about the world of wine, whether it may be the virtual one or the real one.
One of these conferences was actually a work shop about blending Lodi’s iconic wine grape variety: Zinfandel.
This workshop was hosted by the Oakland Urban Wine Trail, a gathering of 10 wineries around a walkable trail located in the urban center of Oakland, California, in the San Francisco Bay area.
Grapes aren’t grown in the city obviously, so the wineries source grapes from all around the state bringing them in to their city wineries in trucks after harvest.
The advantages of being based in Oakland for the wineries include: access to many grapes from vineyards not far, cheap warehouse prices, dense drinking population all around, great industrial electricity, efficient waste water management, close to San Francisco (with the ferry, you can get to Oakland from downtown SF in 10 minutes!).
2 of the Oakland Wine Trail wineries, put up for the 2016 Wine Bloggers Conference a workshop about how to blend California iconic grape variety.
Workshop speakers were:
- Michael Dashe from Dashe Cellars. He is married to Anna Dashe, a Bordeaux-trained French winemaker
This is a relatively small yet popular winery producing around 10,000 cases per year.
The fun story of their distinctive label: “The monkey on the fish” Anne is the fish because she’s a French national from Brittany which is a fish area. Michael is the silly monkey that gets carried around by the fish.
- Brandon Eliason from Periscope Cellars who also likes distinctive creative labels
Zinfandel Blending Workshop: The influence of small proportions in a blend
For the legal context, it has to reminded here than in the United States, a wine labeled under a specific grape variety (e.g. Cabernet Sauvignon, or Zinfandel) has to contain at least 75% of that grape.
This leaves winemakers with plenty of room (a 25%-proportion) to blend in wines from other grapes. This relative ‘freedom’ is generally used to improve a wine’s tasting profile, for perfecting the mouthfeel and giving it further layers of complexity and appeal.
To illustrate how winemakers can play around when blending, and how even a small proportion of a wine from a different grape variety can have a dramatic influence on a wine, speakers had prepared 3 glasses, and a blending protocol:
- Glass #1: this is the base wine, and the control. Alexander Valley Zinfandel, from Geyserville, 50-year-old vines.
This glass is used to create a mental reference of the base wine, against which the blends will be compared.
- Glass #2: 40ml of base wine, we add 5ml of Petite Sirah (final blend has 10% PS + 90% Zin)
How much will the 10% PS change the profile of the old vine Zin?
- Glass #3: 40ml of base wine, we add 5ml of Petite Sirah + 5ml of Carignane (final blend has 10% PS + 10% Carignane + 80% Zin)
What will the 20% added wine do to the Zin?
After a few pipetting manipulations (syringing I should say) to add the exact proportions to the control wine, we got the pleasure to taste the various blends, and find out what they’d become:
Glass #1 = Base wine Zin
Warm nose with notes of black olive, dark cherry and black pepper. It’s spicy and fruity. The palate is surprisingly fresh, and extraordinarily spicy. Great acidity sustains the freshness of the fruit, especially upfront. On the mid-palate, the spices kick in strongly giving powerful peppery and eucalyptus notes. Granulous tannins, giving a little bitterness on the finish. Long finish bringing in complex and savory earthy notes.
A solid good Zin as you’d expect from Alexander Valley old vines!
Glass #2 (10% Petite Sirah): The nose is noticeably fruitier.
While on the Zin alone, the fruit was discrete and more of a background note on the nose, here it is a more prominent feature. Same impression on the palate, where the wine appears much fruitier, the ripe fruit notes taming the spiciness of the zin. Tannins are softer and feel less granulous, coated by the body and richness of PS
Glass #3 (10% PS + 10% Carignan): The wine appears quite similar to glass #2, but more complex.
It has plenty of fruit brought by the PS, and the spiciness and earthiness of the Zin. But there are some additional notes of fresh berries (raspberry and blueberry). The wine also displays notes of spices than weren’t present before: sweeter than the spices of the Zin: clove and nutmeg. Some more earthiness too.
Speakers Michael Dashe and Brandon Eliason perfectly illustrated the power of blending.
To a base wine that has its quality, but also its weaknesses, the winemaker adds layers and layers of complexity perfecting the mouthfeel and the expression of the wine.
Michael Dashe explained how he learnt this art when working at Chateau Lafite-Rothschild in Bordeaux, where winemakers there would spend months testing different blends to craft one of the best zines in the world.
I personally worked next door at Chateau Margaux, and I can confirm this is indeed how it is done blending Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from tens of different vineyards from some of the best terroirs in the world.
Bonus: How Far can blending be pushed? The secret sauce!
To further demonstrate what can be achieved by blending, Brandon Eliason (Periscope Cellars) came up with a 4th glass.
To the 40ml of control Old Vine Zin wine, we would add 25 ml (a 40% proportion of the final blend) of a ‘secret sauce’.
Secret Sauce Recipe: 2013 RR Pinot Noir + 2007 Sierra Foothill Cabernet + 2006 Alexander Valley Zinfandel
Can you imagine adding to your youthful Zin some Pinot Noir and matured (nearly 10 years old) Cabernet?
Surely there is something wrong about doing this! Or maybe not?
How is the resulting wine?
Tasting note: Very complex nose filled with ripe berry fruits, plenty of notes of evolution (forest floor) bring plenty of complexity and depth. The palate also displays a myriad of layers that are revealed one after the other, in a very long wine. The texture of the wine is a little all over the place though, with bumps in the mouthfeel perception, burps of fruit kicking in in the middle, ashes notes popping up surprisingly.
Conclusion: a great blend pushing the boundaries of blending
Multi-vintage, multi-varietal, is a great success overall.
It makes for a very complex and enjoyable wine, transforming a youthful Zin into a complex ready-to-be-enjoyed alchemy.
Perhaps winemaker should do more of this?
Well, perhaps not.
In all honesty, the resulting wine felt like it was pushed a little far, making a surprising wine that goes in a little too many directions.
Despite the layers, it had lost some composure during certain short moments of the wine tasting it provided.
Final conclusion: A little bit of what you like does you good!
A little bit of careful blending is good. Too much of it not!
From one extreme to the other, this Zin blending workshop hit the spot illustrating the power of blending in winemaking.
[Read the article in full here.]