Red blends are so popular they’ve outsold all other reds in the US – except cabernet sauvignon, the most popular wine here and in the rest of the world. Blends, just like varietals, run the gamut between inexpensive supermarket wines (think Two Buck Chuck) to fine wines that stand up to their sister varietals (think BOXT).
The Bordelais have been blending reds for centuries, as have winemakers in the Rhône Valley and the Chianti district of Tuscany. And we know the French and Italians know what they’re doing when it comes to wine. People often assume that a red Bordeaux is a varietal, but it’s actually the world’s most popular blend and combines two or more of five classic reds: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec.
In fact, most wines we all consider varietals – because they are labelled that way – merlot, malbec, sangiovese, sauvignon blanc, gewurztraminer, are actually blends. That’s because only 75% of a wine needs to be a single grape to be called by the name of that grape. And that is because most grape varieties get better when you blend them. Exceptions to blending are pinot noir and chardonnay, unless we’re talking champagne.
“The five traditional bordeaux red grapes complement one another in flavor, tannin and acidity. They also provide a hedge against climate. Merlot ripens early, and is reliable in cool years when cabernet sauvignon may struggle to ripen before autumn rains. Climate change is making Bordeaux vintners rethink merlot’s role as vintages trend hotter, says Rutger de Vink, of RdV Vineyards in Delaplane, VA.
He likens blending to an artist mixing colors on a palette. “Merlot is round, petit verdot adds color, cabernet franc brings freshness, and cabernet sauvignon contributes structure,” he says. “The blend always comes together into a better wine than the individual lots. The idea is to craft the best expression from that hillside for that year.'”1
BOXT takes this idea of blending to a whole new level. We’re not only interested in combining wines to bring out their best features, but in creating wines that aren’t tied to one region, one varietal, one terroir. We are out to create an experience for the wine drinker – and because we’re not tied to single varietals, we can bring you a glass of wine you know you’re going to love every single time, even if it’s slightly different than before, because as de Vink points out, no blend can be the same two years in a row, even if all the grapes are from the same hillside. For us, that makes it fun, that’s why we’re unique in the wine world. We don’t make the same wine every time, we make the same wine experience for you every time. That’s the art of BOXT.
“The blending of different grape varieties is both a science and an art. The science is in testing grapes to see how they complement each other based on aromas and flavors that result from local climate and terroir. The art is in knowing when to push the boundaries of traditional blending science, expanding the limits of the great wine frontier to craft a wine that is greater than the sum of its parts.” 2
“Think of wine in a similar way to coffee. Single-varietal wines, such as single-origin coffees, have a very particular taste profile, delivering clear tasting notes. Wine blends, such as coffee blends, are usually more rounded, thanks to the sum of different flavors and aromas from the different berries mixed in there. Even though a producer or region can focus on a leading grape for their wines, adding alternative grapes provides balance, depth/complexity and structure to them.” 3
We asked our own winemaker and COO, Steve Ryan, to explain the art and science of blending wines, and he gave us the analogy of a football shape. He explained, “That football shape is what we’re going for structurally in our wines. We design and build a blend using the structural strengths of different varietals. For instance, we might use a cab franc to hit the forepalate – the beginning of your palate where you’ll notice the aromatics, then we’ll add merlot to inflate the football at mid palate, and make it juicy, ripe and fruit forward. Then we might use a malbec to play towards the back of the mid palate, a cabernet sauvignon to hit all the marks at the end of your palate, then a petit verdot to have a great finish lingering until you approach the glass again.”
He went on to tell us about how the process works in the tasting room at the BOXT winery in Napa. “We taste the base wine first and figure out where the holes are. We all sit at the blending table and analyze where things are hitting our palate. If we need more fruit, we go to cab franc. If we need more finish go to petit verdot. Then we taste through each of the blending components and notice if this one is really aromatic, or this one is really tannic. We get our baseline at maybe 90% and then for instance, we try 3%-4% percent more merlot and then we work on the finish. The more merlot you add the more inflated and round the football will be and when you do that takes away from finish. It’s a push pull.
Whenever we’re blending, we have a final picture in mind and we put these puzzle pieces together and see what fits. It’s not uncommon, since we know what we’re doing, [because all we do is blend wines] to hit it on the third, fourth, fifth iteration. We’re playing with adding a few percent of this or that. We revisit all our blends a day later to see how it’s changing and how the components marry together. For us, people are drinking our wines once they receive the BOXT, so our goals are different than a winemaker who’s putting something in a bottle that’s going to age for years. We’re blending for the now and that really is where the winemaking art comes into play. It’s about all those different factors of when is this wine going to be consumed and when is it going to peak? Is it now or three months down the road? We also do blends that we aren’t getting out to our members for three to four months, so we do those a little differently.
We’re about to finish up another batch of our Profile Four Five tomorrow at the winery in Napa. I’m going to taste it to see if we need to sprinkle anything in there before we go to vat. Just like a chef, you have your recipe, but the salt or seasoning is what you might change – what you tinker with before you plate it and serve it to your guests. It’s the same with wine.
It’s an art that can really only come with experience. Experience really hones the art, you get better and better and better.”