When you choose a bottle of wine do you opt for one with a familiar grape variety on the label, are you happy to pick a bottle that just shows the region or do you take a punt on a blend of possibly unknown grapes? Many of us are guilty of sticking to single varietals: that old favourite Merlot always hits the spot. It takes confidence to buy an unfamiliar wine and many regional wine labels don’t state what grape varieties the wine actually contains.
Generations of French winemakers have learnt that certain grapes complement each other, and can combine to make a whole that is better than the sum of its parts. Blending grape varieties can also be the best option if certain varieties are affected by pests and diseases and need to be replaced by hardier ones. The vagaries of the weather may require that several grape varieties are grown just to produce wine at all.
Famous French Blends
Bordeaux reds tend to be made from up to four grape varieties. Merlot adds plummy flavours and colour. Cabernet Sauvignon adds tannin and blackcurrant flavours. Cabernet Franc adds flavours of liquorice and violets as well as tannin to the blend. Petit Verdot turns up the volume, helping to enhance tannin levels. If you’re looking to be swayed by a French blend, an easy-drinking style such as the Château Gontier, a blend of 70% Merlot and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, is a good place to start.
Dry whites from Bordeaux are usually made from Sauvignon Blanc which adds acidity and aromatics such as gooseberry. This is often blended with Semillon which gives the wine body (sometimes described as an oiliness) as well as a lemon character and a certain minerality. Muscadelle is also added to give a floral perfume. Château Moulin de Launay is a blend of all three grapes and is great with fish and chips.
The Rhône Valley
The Rhône should be seen as two distinct regions – the steep, narrow river valley of the Northern Rhône where grapes are grown on high terraced vineyards, and the more open expanses of the Southern Rhône. Northern Rhône reds tend to be made from 100% Syrah grapes but occasionally smaller amounts of white Viognier are added to the likes of Côte Rôtie to soften the tannic power of the Syrah.
The Southern Rhône has a Mediterranean climate which allows for grapes that can cope with higher temperatures without becoming overripe. Although laws allow up to fifteen grapes in a blend, you are most likely to find Grenache, adding alcohol and fruitiness; Syrah which gives peppery black fruit and Mourvèdre which gives tannin. For an approachable red, wines such as Ventoux Les Traverses Rouge blend Grenache and Syrah to give an intensely fruity, bright style.
Rhône whites tend to contain the Marsanne grape which gives depth of flavour, with hints of nuts, pears and peaches, while Roussanne provides perfume, richness and a slightly oily texture. For a classic white blend, the Marsanne and Roussanne dream-team in the Saint Péray Les Sauvagères punches well above its price tag.
Champagne usually contains varying proportions of Chardonnay (a white grape), and Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (both black grapes). A classic Non-Vintage Champagne is usually a blend of all three but a Blanc de Blancs Champagne can only be made from the white Chardonnay. A Blanc de Noirs only contains one or two red grape varieties: Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier.
Chardonnay adds elegance and crisp citrus flavours, and nicely conveys the flavours associated with the wine’s ageing process, adding yeasty, biscuity notes. Pinot Noir gives structure and richer, toastier notes with hints of riper fruit, while Pinot Meunier is the reliable, early-ripening grape of Champagne. Good value grower Champagnes such as the Charles Valendray Brut Premier Cru NV offer elegant blends of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay without you having to spend too many precious pennies.
If you need to swap those comfy slipper wines for some adventurous walking boot wines, head to the classic French blends and get stuck in…
Looking for Something Specific?
- 5 Good Reasons NOT To Just Buy Wine On Special Offer
- Amazing Wines From Around The World. It’s Our Thing
- Forget The Big Boys. Wine’s Best From The Enthusiasts
- How To Look Smart With Your Wine Choices
- Is It Worth Spending More On Wine?
- Not Happy With Your Wine? What To Do About It
- The Best Value Wines In The UK? We’re Up There
- Where’s The Best Place To Get Wine Advice?
- Why Great Wine Is Never Found In Supermarkets
- Why ‘By The Case’ Is The Best Way To Buy Wine