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Mixing It Up (July 31, 2009)

In France they do it all the time – making blends of white grapes and sometimes doing white and black grapes together. Think white Bordeaux, Champagne, Edelzwicker from Alsace and Viognier added to Syrah in the Northern Rhône.

The varietal imperative, a gospel preached in North America by Robert Mondavi, has shaped consumer expectations that the best white wines are made from a single variety, whether that be Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris or Viognier.

But with the market-driven need for wineries to distinguish their product from their competitors, and consumers' incipient boredom when presented with oceans of Chardonnay, more and more producers are turning to blended white wines.

The trend was started in California by Caymus Vineyards with its 1989 blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscat Canelli called Conundrum. The wine astonished the critics and won the top white award at the San Francisco State Fair in 1991. The philosophy behind this wine was summed up in the rhetorical question posed by its winemaker, Jon Bolta: "Why couldn't a wine mirror – in complexity and creativity – the dishes being invented by a new generation of chefs who had no allegiance to the traditions and rules of the past?"

Australia has long blended Chardonnay and Sauvignon (a travesty according to the appellation-bound French. The Italians are more pragmatic. Witness Frescobaldi's Pomino Bianco, a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Bianco or Antinori's Cervaro della Salla, a blend of Chardonnay and Grechetto). And now Canadian wineries are beginning to look beyond the single-variety white wine.

Stratus burst onto the Ontario wine scene in 2000 with a white blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Riesling and Gewurztraminer. Flack Rock Cellars produces a wine called Twisted (Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay), a blend which proprietor Ed Madronich says was originally resisted by his winemaker, "but when the blend was put together it was an obvious winner."

Hillebrand's head winemaker, Darryl Brooker, got the idea for his Trius White on a trip to Alsace in 2001. "‘I was impressed with the field blends that most people were dabbling in, specifically Marcel Deiss. I was really impressed with the varieties and what they offered to the blend. It was fun to try and see the different components of what are three very different varieties in respect to aromatics, palate weight/texture and chemistry." Trius White is a blend of Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Gris and a small amount of Chardonnay. The 2008 vintage has evolved to Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Savignin, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. In the Okanagan, Joie Wines also pays homage to Alsace with a wine they call A Noble Blend made up of Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Kerner, Muscat, Auxerrois and Ehrenfelser.

In British Columbia the race is truly underway to capture consumer palates with exotic white blends. Hainle Estate's Deep Creek label has a wine called "Wusiwug," a quasi-acronym for "What you see is what you get" and billed as "an array of premium Okanagan grapes with Chardonnay leading the way." Mission Hill's label Fork In The Road Oliver Block 212 White is a blend of Chardonnay, Semillon, Pinot Gris and Viognier. And Tin Horn Creek offers a wine called Collection 2Bench White 2005, a blend of Semillon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Gewurztraminer. The ever-inventive Blasted Church Vineyard's most popular wine is Hatfield's Fuse, a mix of Optima, Ehrenfelser, Pinot Gris, Riesling and Gewurztraminer; and Sumac Ridge's 2007 vintage of Pinnacle White is a blend of Ehrenfelser, Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscat. On Salt Spring Island, Garry Oaks Winery makes a wine called Prism, a blend of Gewurztraminer and Chardonnay.

We're going to see more of these proprietary blends in future whose constituent parts and percentages of them will change according to the vintage. The non-commital term White after the winery name on the label allows the winemaker great latitude in how he or she creates the wine given the quality of the available varieties in any given year. And look for more experimentation in red blends as well.




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