Peter Ranscombe relives his sixth-year studies* chemistry lessons with a spot of online blending.
FOR such a simple word, “blend” is packed full of complexity.
It’s easy to pass over that collection of five little letters without giving it much thought.
Yet listening online this afternoon to winemaker Felipe Tosso and grape grower Sergio Hormazábal at Chilean winery Ventisquero explain about the effort that goes into producing their Enclave cabernet sauvignon has given me a new-found respect for the blend.
What struck me most was that their focus was not on blending the barrels in the winery – although they are meticulous in selecting the right casks to give the right flavours to the finished wine.
Instead, they were far keener to talk about how they bring together grapes from a selection of vineyards to create their blend.
While Ventisquero’s other wines – including its pinot noir – are made from grapes grown in its own fields, Tosso and Australian winemaking consultant John Duval scoured the country to find the perfect fruit for their cabernet.
Their journey culminated in a blind tasting of cabernet sauvignons from throughout Chile in 2009.
They identified the Pirque region in the upper reaches of the Maipo valley as producing wines that tasted of the classic cabernet cassis flavour, rather than the mint that characterises other parts of the long thin South American country.
‘Partners’ not ‘suppliers’
Altitude was the key – they found two vineyards that produced grapes with the flavour they wanted.
One sits at about 750 metres above sea level in Pirque’s El Principal area, while the other is at an altitude of nearly 1,000 metres at San Juan de Pirque, higher up in the foothills of the Andes mountains.
Finding the vineyards was a labour of love that had taken ten years.
Then, in 2010, they unleashed Enclave, named after the way the Maipo river pins the vineyards to the hillsides.
“The two vineyards are like the yin and the yang,” explained Hormazábal via Zoom.
“El Principal is the bones, while San Juan is the soul.”
He described the farmers as “friends” and “partners” rather than “suppliers”.
“It’s a wine about relationships,” he added.
‘Like adding salt and pepper’
While it may say “cabernet sauvignon” on the label on the front of the bottle, each year Tosso adds a small amount of cabernet franc, carménère, and petit verdot to his blend, taken from other vineyards in the upper Maipo.
“It’s like cooking – when you add salt and pepper,” he said.
The same is true in Bordeaux, where carménère, malbec, and petit verdot are added like seasoning to the major components of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and cabernet franc.
But how can a wine call itself “cabernet sauvignon” when in fact it’s a blend of grapes?
The answer lies in the normally dull realms of labelling laws – but here there’s a broader point to be made.
If you want to label a wine as being made from a single variety for sale in the European Union (EU) then it must contain at least 85% of that varietal – so that cheeky wee “merlot” you’re enjoying from the South of France may in fact contain up to 15% malbec.
In Chile, wine for domestic sale follows a 75% rule, and so Tosso is signalling his dedication to cabernet sauvignon by following the stricter EU rule.
In a year with normal weather conditions, the ratio of cabernet will be 50-50 between San Juan and El Principal, with San Juan making a larger contribution in warmer years, bringing more balance thanks to the freshness from its higher altitude.
I’ll leave the blending to the experts
That impressive freshness was on show in the Ventisquero Enclave 2012 (£45, Davy’s), which opened with pronounced cigar smoke, cedar, cassis, blackcurrant, and red plum on the nose before launching into fresher black and redcurrants on the palate.
Spicy clove and sweeter vanilla danced in among the concentrated cassis.
It was a joy to taste the wine now when it is ready to drink – Enclave spends between 18 months and two years in barrel and then a further four years in bottle, only being released to the market when it’s ready to drink.
That places an extra cost on the winery to store the wine, rather than the consumer cellaring it at home, but the pounds it adds to the price tag are well worth it because this is a world-class cabernet.
The main benefit is the way the tannins have reached full integration – you know they’re there, but they’re not sticking their gum-scratching heads above the parapet.
Similarly, the Ventisquero Enclave 2014 – which is on its way to the UK and will go on sale this summer – has a delicious roundness to its texture, although the acidity is more noticeable and may need a few months longer to settle.
It’s much smokier on the nose, with wood smoke and barbecue coals, yet that doesn’t overwhelm the intense cassis aromas or flavours, or the fresher green pepper notes.
My renewed respect for the art of blending was further engrained as I clumsily tried to mix my own Enclave using the mini samples of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, carménère, and petit verdot from the 2019 vintage that Ventisquero had supplied along with the full-sized bottles of the 2012 and 2014 – I think I’ll leave the blending to the experts.
*For anyone too young to remember, sixth-year studies were the forerunner to today’s advanced highers. They were all in black and white.
Read more of Peter’s wine, beer and spirits reviews on his blog, The Grape & The Grain