Forbidden blends: Multivintage wines

Blending different vintages to make table wines has been frowned upon by winegrowers, connoisseurs and authorities alike. Roger Morris searches out some contrarian winemakers who think non-vintage wines still make sense.

Paint-PotsXavier Ausàs practises a frowned- upon, though ancient, art. “The important thing is style, not the vintage,” declares Ausàs, technical director at Vega Sicilia, the pioneering Ribera del Duero winery that has long defined excellence in Spanish table wines.

He is talking about his “Reserva Especial” – a most-highly regarded wine that doesn’t bear a vintage date. “It is clear that in this world where everything revolves around France – the country that dictates the norm – it is difficult to talk about a wine that is ‘non-millésime,’ but this wine forms part of the viti-vinicola Spanish heritage, and for that we have to respect it.” Noting that almost no Spanish wineries today produce the once- traditional special reserves because they are difficult to market, Ausàs concludes, “Nevertheless, in Vega Sicilia, we not only produce it, it is the most difficult to get!”

Winemakers love to blend. They blend different varieties, blend different colours of grapes, blend grapes from different vineyards, blend cuvées within a vineyard, blend wines that have been fermented in stainless steel with those fermented in oak. And they love debating the variations in how and when to blend – in the field, in the fermenter, immediately after fermentation, after oak aging, just before bottling. One could almost argue this desire to mix grapes and juice from different pedigrees and sources is part of a winemaker’s genetic makeup, something he or she can’t escape, like indigenous yeast on a bunch of dusky grapes.

ALCOHOLIC ALCHEMY

Yet, unless they are making sparkling or fortified wines, the huge majority of winemakers worldwide are very hesitant to mix vintages, even when they can legally retain a single vintage date on the bottle and even though the advantages of blending vintages – uniform style, better- balance, a short crop lengthened – are well known. It is almost as if they fear being accused of a despicable act against nature, or that men in blue uniforms will materialise at their cellar doors with court orders to search the premises.

And if they do dabble in the art, they generally don’t talk about it.

“Some time ago, most wines in the Old World didn’t have a vintage,” points out Chris Howell, who, along with well-rated estate vintage wines, has been making his non-vintage Cain Cuvée since 1999 at the winery on Spring Mountain in Napa Valley. Howell said, “A vintage wine connoted something of value, something special. That has changed in my time, where most wines have a vintage date, regardless of whether it was a good or bad year.”

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