2023 YGOW Awards Feature:
The Art of the Blend

Wines Of Now
30 May 2023. Words by YGOW.

While we have some famous blended red wine styles in this country – notably classic Bordeaux blends, cabernet combined with shiraz and the old GSM – Australian drinkers have overwhelmingly favoured varietal wines. In modern times, at least. Historically, all manner of grapes – some that are no longer often employed – found their way into blends that were labelled things like Claret or Hermitage, prioritising style over variety. But when varieties were championed solo and listed on the front label, blends largely became a little less chic. However, classic blends in the hands of progressive makers as well as eccentric combinations have become a much bigger part of the picture for today’s wine drinker.

Tony Zafirakos (Aristotelis Ke Anthoula), Luke Andree (Sonnen), Nick Dugmore (Stoke), Riley Harrison (Harrison), Chad Connolly (White Gate Wine Co.), Alan Varney (Varney Wines), Sam Renzaglia (di Renzo), Richard Burch and Nic Bowen (Mon Tout) are all backers of the blend.

“Single variety wines come with quality prompts that we all draw upon when appraising their quality,” says Riley Harrison of Harrison Wines. “Blended wines add a layer of complexity that is more difficult to pigeonhole. Percentages, co-ferment or bench blended, contribution of componentry etc… These wines get our heads out of the textbooks and into the mind of the winemaker… I love the additional emotional connection that is created when the mind wanders and we dream. We don’t always need to know everything.”

Blending artistry

The art of blending is one that all winemakers need to have some experience with, even when working with a varietal wine. If working with barrels, each will be different, and some may be less successful than others, even from the same fruit source. Additionally, many makers, depending on the variety, will have different fermentation regimens to give them options when making the final blend, not to mention picking and fermenting different blocks/clones separately. When blending across varieties, that colour palette can get even richer.

Opposite: Riley Harrison. Above: Alan Varney. “Flavours are not created, but built,” declares Varney.
“Blended wines add a layer of complexity that is more difficult to pigeonhole. Percentages, co-ferment or bench blended, contribution of componentry, etc… These wines get our heads out of the textbooks and into the mind of the winemaker.”

“I had an interesting conversation once with a chef mate of mine where we talked in depth about how flavours are not created, but built,” says Varney Wine’s Alan Varney. “I often look at winemaking as a builder’s craft. The structure of a wine is a term we use to describe how the various elements like aroma, flavour, acidity and mouthfeel interact with one another. Of course, we are always seeking balance in our finished blends and that is what we look for when considering what varieties will support each other.”

Varney makes two grenache-based blends. “Grenache always demands attention in a blend with its proud and obvious aromatic qualities,” he says. “It then often wants some support on the palate with a more tannic variety, which is where we see the classic grenache shiraz mourvèdre blend come into play. I’m after spicy aromatic shiraz that will support the grenache, not overripe and overtly tannic ‘big’ shiraz. I use shiraz from some cooler spots in the Vale, like Blewitt Springs and Clarendon. Then the mourvèdre fills in the mid-palate nicely and in the best years adds an almost bloody ironstone character.”

Bigger not always better

That’s for Varney’s individual take on the classic blend that South Australian makers embraced in the 1990s as a New World homage to the wines of the Southern Rhône, especially Côtes du Rhône and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. For a different angle, he swaps out the shiraz for touriga nacional in his Entrada bottling. “It’s made in a very modern approachable fun style, with aromatics derived from the touriga central to the soul. The pretty grenache is picked early to retain freshness, and the mourvèdre lends structure and a touch of weight. It is a drink-now style, but that’s not to say it is short of tannin or complexity.”

Working from the Barossa Valley, Chad Connolly takes three classic regional varieties for his riff on the blend, but he swaps out shiraz in favour of cabernet. “These Barossa varieties have such character when made in a fruit-forward, no-oak-influence manner – putting together ‘Otto’ was a joy. We can let each variety shine and build layers within the finished wine.”

Georgia and Chad Connolly of White Gate Wine Co. ‘Otto’ is a riff on the classic GSM (grenache-shiraz-mataro) blend, with cabernet swapped in for shiraz.

Connolly’s ‘Otto’ is another example where making a bright style is not at the sacrifice of detail, which comes as a result of building a blend with disparate parcels. “The grenache component saw a large percentage of whole bunch, so it was super floral… red cherry, raspberry, forward… The mataro and cabernet were both whole berry and quite subdued in comparison to the usual BV models but with their own varietal expression, which gave us some gnarly-ness and crunch. Overall, we finished with complexity and a layered, intriguing wine that keeps you coming back for another look.”

Home ground advantage

From the 2022 vintage, the Stoke’s Nick Dugmore made a wine that came out of necessity, but it was also a very considered interpretation of the classic Australian blend of shiraz and cabernet. “The wine was made in the year we ripped the band-aid off our new vineyard,” he says. “It was being conventionally farmed and we had converted to regenerative farming. That year we got 3 tonnes from 4.2 hectares. To put it in perspective, this year [’23] we got 28 tonnes, and it was treated 100 per cent organically.”

With only 300–400 kilograms of cabernet to work with, he picked it at the same time as the shiraz and co-fermented the two. The aim was never to make a classic style, but rather to celebrate the great Australian blend through a modern lens with the distinct properties of Kangaroo Island fruit, with its long and cool growing seasons. “Being from a relatively unknown wine region, we have always just wanted to make strong examples of each variety or style,” says Dugmore. “We definitely wanted to do our version of an Aussie classic.”

The Stoke version was fermented as whole berries with no stems to avoid overt greenness against cabernet’s naturally leafy profile. It was also pressed off before fully dry to not extract too much cool tannin from the early-picked cabernet. “There was a bit of winemaking involved in this one, but I think the cabernet is the star of the wine,” Dugmore notes. “It is not green but shows some really well-integrated varietal eucalypt character. It got a little freshen up with some other shiraz, too, and spent plenty of time on lees to flesh out.”

Nick Dugmore at Cassini vineyard on Kangaroo Island. “When making minimal intervention wines, it [blending] is the most powerful tool you have up your sleeve,” says Dugmore.

With most of the fruit for the Stoke label now coming from their leased vineyard, the ability to blend across parcels and also varieties has become a distinct advantage, says Dugmore. “Our making has changed a lot since growing our own fruit and producing a lot more. The elements of each wine are made separately and then pieced back together when it comes time to blend. It means quite a few picks for any one variety, but it gives us a huge amount of control and enables us to make wine of consistently high quality without the need of additions.”

That capacity means that parcels can be picked earlier to provide acidity and freshness, while later picked portions can add a different flavour profile and concentration. “When making minimal intervention wines, it is the most powerful tool you have up your sleeve,” says Dugmore. “I love a blending session too!”

A movable feast

Sourcing fruit from across New South Wales for his di Renzo range, Sam Renzaglia embraces blending for the ability to build complexity in the finished wines, but it also allows for flexibility. “Blending has been very useful to us over the past few years in a turbulent fruit market,” he says. “We have been able to use blending to maintain a consistent mix of labels, while the grapes we use to make them might change from year to year.”

His Nuovo di Renzo is a movable feast, with the blend never repeated. “Nuovo means new, and it implies the wine is made to be drunk early, and additionally it is made from a new mix of grapes each year,” says Renzaglia. “Generally, the grapes come into the winery a week or two earlier than fruit destined for table wines… There is always an element of carbonic maceration, which we might destem and finish on or off skins. There’s also always a number of whole bunch elements that differ in length of maceration, and there is generally a component that is treated like a dark rosé.”

Opposite: Sam Renzaglia. His Nuovo di Renzo is a movable feast, with the blend never repeated. “Light reds are often insipid, and in my opinion that needs to be balanced with a bitter component,” he says, noting that whole bunch components add these balancing tannins. Above: Determining blend proportions a2021 Sonnen ‘Light Dry Red’ Tasmania 12.5%t Mon Tout.

Renzaglia stresses that all the treatments depend on the underlying character of the fruit, rather than working to a recipe, with each having to provide light and shade to the final wine – including adding skinsy white components. “Light reds are often insipid, and in my opinion that needs to be balanced with a bitter component,” he says, noting that whole bunch components add these balancing tannins. “All the elements, distinctly different, come together and are matured in concrete to make our Nuovo, and we have a lot of fun trying to build a wine that’s super complex but still light.”

Greater than the sum…

That kind of detail is something that Harrison believes is harder to come by when working with single varieties. “When it comes to composing fine wine, the blending of varieties suited to one another can achieve levels of complexity and intrigue that are rarely witnessed in single variety expressions. There’s no doubt that a lot can be said about the benefits of single varieties from single vineyards – when all the stars align, there is no greater display of fruit purity and terroir. While not wanting to discount this, in the broader wine landscape very few sites and individual varieties are able to deliver this.”

That’s not to say blending is a guarantee of a more nuanced result, though, says Varney. He stresses that the strength of each component should shine in the finished wine. “The separate parcels should add up to something greater than the sum of the parts… Caution must be taken to ensure a blend is not dominated by any one parcel… The aspect of time, and how the wine will age gracefully also requires a fair bit of consideration and years of practice. In my conversation with my chef friend, we agreed that winemaking and cooking share many similarities, but he did point out that only winemakers must factor in the element of ageing. It’s our crystal ball ability that ensures balance over time.”

There’s little doubt that the art of blending is a feature of the current crop of winemakers, and from everything from multiple varieties and varied techniques to topping off largely varietal wines with modest but meaningful inclusions of complementary grapes. Whether subtly redefining traditions or chasing new and exciting expressions, the art of the blend is alive and well.

The wines

2022 Harrison ‘Greg’ Grenache Mataro
McLaren Vale, 14%, $50

This is brooding and lithe at the same time, with the mataro providing a backbone of dark earthy notes and spice against the red-fruited contribution of the grenache. Subtle notes of leather, liquorice and tobacco play at the fringes. There’s power here, certainly edging up from midweight, but it’s marked by being neither rich and juicy or overtly savoury, with fine grape-derived tannins and a briny ferrous/iodine regional character featuring on the palate.

Experience the story – shop the wines at Finestro online cellar door.

2022 Nuovo di Renzo
NSW, 11.8%, $35

A blend of sangiovese, graciano, vermentino, cabernet and tempranillo made across a range of techniques from whole berry, whole bunch, a rosé approach, and a skinsy treatment with the vermentino, this is in the ultra-bright and fresh frame. But it’s got savouriness and detail aplenty. Sangiovese notes kick off, with sour pickled and macerated fresh cherries alongside redcurrant jelly, cranberry and a summer berry vibe that is fringed with an earthiness and woodsy herb complexity. This sits lightly in the mouth, and chilling is an obvious, though not essential, option, but the layering of fine sandy tannin gives this plenty of deeper interest.

Experience the story – shop the wines at Finestro online cellar door.

2021 Sonnen ‘Light Dry Red’
Tasmania, 12.5%, $40

A blend of syrah, pinot noir and pinot meunier, this is very much in the savoury spectrum, with a layer of wild amaro-like herbs wafting across a canvas of dark forest berries, olive and an earthy, peaty complexity. That’s likely mainly the shiraz component at play, with the pinots kicking up red-fruited notes and contributing a suppleness on the palate that plays over grippier, chewy tannins. This is medium bodied and fresh, but there’s a brooding quality to it, too.

Experience the story – shop the wines at Finestro online cellar door.

2021 Stoke ‘Cassini’ Shiraz Cabernet
Kangaroo Island, 13.5%, $37

The cabernet plays a meaningful part here, cradled by the slightly more voluptuous shiraz elements. Lifted notes of cassis, mulberry, tapenade and a subtle lift of eucalyptus open, with accents of star anise and sarsaparilla adding deeper complexity. There’s a maritime feel, with that tapenade note expanding down a briny line, with sea spray wafts on the nose and a subtle saline feel on the palate, sour cherry notes chiming in, along with some more leathery elements, and a fine but chewy grip, finishing with a balance of freshness and ruggedness.

Experience the story – shop the wines at Finestro online cellar door.

2022 White Gate Wine Co. ‘Otto’ Grenache Mataro Cabernet
Barossa Valley, 13.5%, $34

This is a blend of three varieties that have the potential to make a pretty big wine from this warm region, and they often do, though the combination is not an entirely typical one. But this turns left rather than right at the crossroads, reimagining that outcome, with a bright carbonic note of juicy forest berries underscored by some savoury mataro notes of wild herbs and dark earthiness, with a structuring of cabernet to give this a savoury finish, along with some herbal aromatic lift. It’s an upper midweight affair, juicy but not simple, and a pretty versatile food wine.

Experience the story – shop the wines at Finestro online cellar door.

2021 Aristotelis Ke Anthoula ‘Nanima Road’
Murrumbateman, 13.4%, $42

Equal parts shiraz and pinot noir, this has seen a long time on skins, with small parcels macerated between 3–6 months. This is cool fruited and refined, but it’s marked by the extended skin contact with an emphasis placed on savouriness, featuring notes of plum, preserved fig, panforte, brown cardamom, cassia and pumpernickel, with red fruits peeking in from the background. That savoury feel carries through on the palate, with a plum skin grip, notes of coffee grounds, and a teasingly appealing bitterness, which makes this a very food-friendly wine.

Experience the story – shop the wines at Finestro online cellar door.

2022 Mon Tout ‘Cherry Picking’
Swan Valley, Frankland River, 14%, $33

This is mainly grenache from the Swan Valley, with a small but impactful splash of Syrah from Frankland River. Poised and elegant for a Swan Valley red at decent ripeness, the emphasis is on tart wild forest fruits, cranberries, sour plums and red florals, with an almost musky rose petal lift, a dusting of white pepper and allspice adding a little savoury accent. This doesn’t need it necessarily, but it can certainly take a chill, though not too much – it definitely sings below room temperature, though.

Experience the story – shop the wines at Finestro online cellar door.

2021 Varney Wines ‘Entrada’ Grenache Mourvèdre Touriga
McLaren Vale, 13.1%, $29

This is made up of some grapes that can make some seriously powerful wines, especially in the warmth of McLaren Vale. But this isn’t pitched that way, instead taking the lead from the fresh and vibrant wines of the Iberian Peninsula, emphasising the bright and crunchy side of the varieties, though with plenty of depth of both black and red berries, spice and some leathery savouriness. It’s a food wine, with grilled meat, pizza and stuffed roasted peppers coming to mind.

Experience the story – shop the wines at Finestro online cellar door.

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