In the early 1980s, as California wine producers struggled for global recognition, they hit upon an ingenious approach to compete with established European wines. California wineries gradually replaced blends with misleading names such as “California Burgundy” and “California Chablis” with a new concept dubbed “Fighting Varietals.”
Consumers steadily embraced wines with varietal names such as “merlot” and “chardonnay.” It became easy and trendy to ask for generically named wines rather than a specific producer or appellation.
As Fighting Varietal sales grew, a funny thing happened. Even in France, where grape names virtually never appeared on labels other than in Alsace, some French producers gained permission to use varietal labeling. Bourgogne Blanc “Chardonnay” became a reality.
Even as varietal-labeled wines have become firmly established, Frenchman Alphonse Karr’s famous observation applies: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
As confident California producers have gained global acceptance, many have returned to producing blended wines. Grapes blended properly create a whole equaling more than the sum of the proverbial parts. The resulting wines can exalt distinct terroir, that is, the place where the wines were produced rather than grapes themselves.
Tasting such wines against European counterparts with similar blends and prices makes a fun and tasty comparison. Try the following pairs:
The 2010 Château Meyre, Haut-Médoc “Cru Bourgeois,” France (Luxury 48908; $18.99) delivers a classic red Bordeaux blend from the Gironde Estuary’s “Left Bank.” Situated near the famous Margaux appellation, the wine uses separately harvested and rigorously sorted cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet Franc and petit verdot grapes.
After fermentation in temperature-controlled stainless-steel tanks, the lots age for 12 months in oak barrels, with 30 percent to 60 percent being new wood. Blending occurs just before final bottling.
The wine’s dark purple color unfolds classic bell pepper and cassis aromas with hints of vanilla. Understated flavors of red fruit, plum and bell pepper layer with elegant, smooth tannins and fresh acidity through a seamless dry finish with cassis fruit. Recommended.
From the New World, the purposely inverted italics for the 2012 ”A Proper Claret,” California (Luxury 48791; $16.99) gives an immediate idea of the tongue-in-cheek approach of the producer, Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards.
Unlike Bordeaux reds sometimes referred to as “Claret,” this tasty wine plays with the blend. The classic varieties of cabernet sauvignon (62 percent) and petit verdot (22 percent) join grapes such as tannat, syrah and petite sirah that cannot appear in authentic Bordeaux. The playful name also pokes fun at Mr. Grahm’s long-held, assiduous disdain for cabernet-based blends.
The purplish color offers black and red berry fruit with muted bell pepper notes. Refreshing, forward dark fruit and mint flavors meld with soft tannins and just enough acidity to balance the fruity, but dry finish. Recommended.
In the Minervois appellation of the France’s Languedoc region, grenache, syrah, cinsault and carignan hold sway to produce blended wines with bewitching wild aromas and gorgeous ripe fruit. So it is with the 2011 La 50/50, Vin de France (Luxury 48831; $23.99), a delicious wine from noted winemakers Anne Gros and Jean-Paul Tollot.
Gros and Tollot primarily make wine in Burgundy. But after turning 40 years old, they ventured south seeking a new winemaking challenge — not to mention breathtakingly beautiful landscapes and sunny skies. They chose the rustic, high altitude village of Les Cazelles, where rocky, limestone-rich soils predominate.
Using a blend of grenache, cinsault and a high percentage of carignan, the winemakers apply their Burgundian knack for producing a well-balanced, refreshing wine with delicious flavors and silky texture. Meaty, earthy aromas mix with ripe dark fruit. Lush, dark fruit and juicy meaty flavors layer in robust, yet smooth tannins and a fruity dry finish. Highly recommended.
From California’s Central Coast, the delicious 2011 Tablas Creek Vineyard, Côtes de Tablas, Paso Robles, California (Luxury 46925; $27.99) comes from a 120-acre, organically certified estate planted with classic southern Rhône varietals of grenache, syrah, counoise and Mourvèdre. The dark ruby color offers red fruit and spice aromas enhanced by touches of black pepper, wild flowers and lavender. Round, red fruit flavors with meaty accents blend with smooth tannins and a fresh red fruit finish. Highly recommended.
Dave DeSimone writes about wine for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at [email protected].