Back to Basics: Premium Blends Around The World

You may have noticed that a lot of my posts have been of the exotic variety of late. Aside from recapping vacation adventures, I have gone into great detail on cocktails, plenty of spirits, and unusual grape varieties. So today, it's time to ease up on the gas a little and get back to basics with some good straight-up wine discussion. In this edition of Flight School, I share with you some classic and interesting red and white blends of which I have really received a high level of enjoyment from.

Franciscan Estate Winery does a blending class on-site, but we were fortunate to get one of their blending kits for our classroom. Image credit:  Franciscan Estate

Franciscan Estate Winery does a blending class on-site, but we were fortunate to get one of their blending kits for our classroom. Image credit: Franciscan Estate

At the store, we once ran a blending session using Franciscan Estate's "Magnificat" as our reference point, a kit that is sold by the winery. It is a lot of fun to take the five grapes from the Magnificat (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec) and create your own wine in the proportions you see fit. Tasting your own "Franken-wine" alongside the Magnificat is a great practical exercise in how the different grape varieties play off of one another.

When it comes to wine blends, remember that there is always a method to the madness. While it used to be that some producers would just throw disorganized grapes into the fermentation vats and make a wine from them, individual grape varieties are bringing something to the party. The goal is for the grapes to work in harmony to achieve a desired style. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, for example, have long been partners in Bordeaux wines; Cabernet's "structure" (acid, tannin, and aromatics) have often been a foil for Merlot's plush texture and ripe fruit flavor. However, one can also amplify a specific characteristic in a blend. In an example like this, A Merlot-Malbec blend in Argentina will feel ultra-soft on your palate with very ripe fruit flavors since the two grapes have some marked similarities.

I have three whites and three reds for you to try that have been recent favorites of mine. None of these break the bank and provide you with casual, yet interesting wines to enjoy.

The White Wine Flight

Wieninger Wiener Gemischter Satz ($20): You may remember me mentioning "Gentil" blends as a way to get introduced to the grapes of Alsace, France. Gemischter Satz is a similar concept in Austria. This particular blend is mostly Grüner Veltliner, Weissburgunder, Welschriesling, and Chardonnay, but there are smaller proportions of many local varieties like Riesling, Rotgipfler, Zierfandler, Sylvaner, Traminer, Neuberger. The producer refers to this as "All of Vienna in One Wine." This is aromatic and fresh with delicate citrus and stone fruits, along with some minerally/earthy notes. Perfect with lighter seafood dishes or as a counter to Wiener Schnitzel!

Domaine Lafage Côtes Catalanes "Côté Est" ($14): The Côtes Catalanes region of France near the Spanish border is delivering great value with these unique blends of native and international varieties. Côté Est uses Grenache Blanc (popular for its body, alcohol, and tropical fruit), Roussanne (a high-acid aromatic white grape of the Rhône Valley) and the well-known Chardonnay. The end result is a vibrant, yet creamy white wine with pineapple, apricot, and wild herbs.

Castellargo Friuli Grave "Albus" ($16): Friuli is tucked away in the far northeast of Italy, touching the Austrian and Slovenian borders. Native grape Friulano is blended in near equal proportions with Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay to create a pungent citrus, herbaceous, earthy wine with some texture on the palate and a slightly floral nose. Delicious with a pasta of fresh herbs and green veggies.

The Red Wine Flight

Viberti Langhe "Dolbà" Rosso ($16): The "Dolbà" refers to the blend of Dolcetto (40%) and Barbera (60%). Dolcetto (translates to "the little sweet one") when fully ripened gives you wines with dark berry, almost jammy fruit that has some tannin and strong aromatics. Barbera is the workhorse grape of the Piedmont area, and in this case provides plenty of acid and fresh red cherry fruit to counter the Dolcetto. A wonderful pizza wine!

Domaine de la Solitude Côtes du Rhône ($18): Solitude is a well-regarded producer of the ageworthy Châteauneuf-du-Pape. In some ways, this is the "baby version" of their flagship wine. 50% Grenache (for body and berry fruit flavor), 30% Syrah (for dark, earthy fruit, acid, and tannin), 15% Cinsault (for juicy red raspberry fruit and acid), and 5% Carignan (for additional "structure" such as acid and tannin). What you get is a well-balanced, versatile red blend that goes great with anything from a burger in summertime to a hearty stew in winter.

Graffigna Centenario Elevation San Juan Red Blend ($14): This is a blend of equal parts Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec (both well-suited for many Argentine wines), Syrah, Tannat (an old Southwestern French grape that actually thrives in neighboring Uruguay!) and Bonarda (a fruity red grape that gets lost in the shuffle at times). Tannat's structural and dark fruit content are very high, and Bonarda's fruitiness and full body help counter the aggressiveness of Tannat (which takes its name from "tannin"). The Syrah actually adds a touch of smokiness to the finished wine, too. Sear a cut of red meat, pour a glass of the Elevation, and be happy!

Drinking Among the Chaos

You haven't heard from me in over a week. Life has dealt me plenty of projects, runny noses, and baby sleep transitions so I have just been trying to sort through all of the chaos. This also means there hasn't been much time for drinking. While that's great for my liver, it's not so great for my ability to share new beverages, but such is life.

Notice how I said "much" time. After all, I'm still a professional with a job to do. You need to know what to enjoy when you are going through the same thing. You work your tails off all week long, and sometimes at the end of the night you just want to grab a glass of wine to enjoy without really thinking much about it. I know when I get into this kind of a mood, my only requirement is that it simply tastes good. I don't need some long, complex finish that I need to analyze to death. I'm not looking for subtlety and nuance. Just give me a good, straightforward wine.

So for these moments when we haven't had time to connect due to all of our commitments (and my brain has temporarily turned to mush), let's do a flight of three wines that are satisfying at any time...and they won't cost you an arm and a leg.

I'll be back soon, ready to chat like a grown-up again soon enough after my upcoming trip to the Michael Skurnik Wines Grand Portfolio Tasting in NYC. Enjoy!

Parolvini Barone Nero Veneto Red Blend ($11): The Barone Nero is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec (rare to find in Italy), and Refosco (a popular violet-scented northern Italian grape). This unusual combo yields a wine with lots of dark fruit and gentle tannins. Great with a sausage and pepper sandwich.

Claar Cellars Cabernet-Merlot White Bluff ($16): 60% Cabernet, 40% Merlot, 100% from Columbia Valley, Washington. Bright and ripe cherry, berry, and black plum fruit with a touch of cocoa. Full body, soft tannins, and the right amount of acidity to balance the wine. Delicious and easy-drinking.

St. Hallett "Faith" Barossa Shiraz ($15): Australia deserves a little love. After the "critter" wines infiltrated the U.S. market, we wrongfully stopped taking the wines seriously. What better way to get reacquainted with Aussie Shiraz with the St. Hallett...it has the blackberry jam, prune, and peppery spice that is widely associated with the Shiraz grape. Grab a bacon cheeseburger and get drinking! 

This Week in Tony's Cellar...

Last week was loaded with afterschool activities, rehearsals, concerts, and caring for ill children. It's not easy to find time to get some adult beveraging in with all of that going on, but by golly I found a way to make it happen! After all, part of my service to you is to share what I am drinking, which I realize I have not done nearly enough since starting this blog. You need to know what tastes good, brings you value, what might make a nice gift, and so on.

Fortunately, among the chaos of the week I tasted some terrific wines (sorry...no time for spirits or beer). The Old World triumvirate of France, Italy, and Spain dominated my liver and brought moments of happiness. I have some good things to share with you as all of these are worth seeking out and trying for yourself.

Mionetto Prosecco Brut ($16): Mionetto has been making Prosecco for 130 years, with styles ranging from casual to prestige-level. This flagship product is fresh and lightly fruity; we added some peach nectar for a simple Valentine's Day cocktail.

Bodega Otazu Navarra Premium Cuvée Red Blend ($13): Rioja's neighbor Navarra is red and rosé-dominant. Aside from traditional varieties like Tempranillo and Garnacha, Navarra also plays with international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. This particular blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Tempranillo, and 20% Merlot is loaded with dark cherry, blackberry and tobacco flavors. An easy weeknight red to enjoy with a juicy burger.

Château Saint-Cosme Little James' Basket Press Red ($14): Saint-Cosme is best known for its wines produced in the Gigondas region of the Rhône Valley (a neighbor of the higher-profile Châteauneuf-du-Pape region). This multi-vintage 100% Grenache is aged in concrete tanks, leading to a very fresh, yet dark and deep wine. Awesome with a medium-rare roast beef.

Maison Louis Latour Marsannay ($23): Louis Latour's wines are a consistently great way to get introduced to the individual villages of Burgundy. Red wines from Marsannay are 100% Pinot Noir, and this expression shows a mix of red and black fruit. Fragrant yet powerful on the palate, its savory finish begs for some roast duck, but a charcuterie platter or flavorful cheese (like Munster) would do just fine here, too. We had this as a reward for surviving the busy week!

As for the week coming up...

February 21st: We are tasting a range of wines from Steele of Lake County, California at the Divine Wine Emporium. Bill Bishop, National Sales Manager at Steele, joins us in the classroom. He is a fantastic storyteller and with vineyard holdings throughout California, you can get a very good feel for which styles you prefer over others. Steele's wines are a longtime favorite of the store as they consistently deliver for the price.

February 25th: I am delivering a tasting of kosher wines for a group that is preparing for Passover. The time to taste wines for the holiday table is now, and I will be showcasing an array of wines from Bordeaux, Spain, and Israel, all produced in accordance with kosher guidelines. It's a fun topic to revisit for myself, but it is also great to promote the fact that kosher wines are quite tasty!

Hope your week is off to a great start!