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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.

Xavier 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.


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.”

Hope Family Wine’s Troublemaker red multi-vintages

The 1998 vintage made Howell do the unthinkable: “The 1998 was low-yielding, delicate and potentially austere,” he recalls, while the 1997, still resting in his cellar, was “generous, ripe, full, approachable. Blending them seemed like the natural way to take advantage of the best of both”. He also reveals that today he continues the practice because it adds “one more layer of complexity.”

Austin Hope of Hope Family Wines, located in Paso Robles on California’s Central Coast, comes up with the same thought in another manner. Although Hope has substantially grown the family business at both the higher- and medium- price ranges, he still treasures a contrarian streak he developed during his teenage years.


“We would be blending this or that, and freshening it up with new wine,” a practice of “topping off” barrels permissible in most regions, “and I would taste it and say, ‘Wow, why aren’t we doing more of this? Why not put 50% in there?”

This idea of not having vintage dates on all his wines, he admits, worried his distributors and retailers. “When we came out with Treana [in 1996], it was a blend that we simply called ‘red wine.’ In California, no one was doing that at those higher prices, and we got a lot of pushback. So we went slowly with blending vintages because the distributor had an extra sell to make in explaining the wine.” That, plus the wine trade remembers when California was known mainly for its cheap, non-vintage jug wines, an image it took decades to shed.

Hope Family Wine’s Treana red multi-vintage

Yet today, Hope makes two non-vintage blends. “In the beginning Candor had three vintages, but we’ve cut that back to blending only two,” he says. His other NV brand, Troublemaker, which retails in the $15-to-$20 range “has been on fire”, he declares. “It’s the first non-vintage at that price point, and we sold out the 30,000 cases we made last year.”

While California had its image problems, Bordeaux and Burgundy have been plagued with histories of selling bogus wine, and scandals of illegally blending of vintages and forbidden provenances still haunt many cellars.

Nevertheless, the European Union in 1999 liberalised regulations concerning vintage-dating in all its countries.

“The EU regulation authorises up to 15% of a different vintage to be included in another one,” notes Jean-Luc Thunevin, St-Émilion-based negociant and co-owner of Château Valandraud. “When it happens, it is generally to include 15% of a younger vintage to boost an older one.” He continues: “The use of a small part of a younger vintage is… a great way to smooth any roughness a long ageing in wood could bring to a wine before its bottling.”

Cain Cuvée multi-vintage from Napa


While EU regulation 1493/99, Annex VII, E.7 may have opened the door to non-vintage blending, it did not open the floodgates, at least not according to most Bordeaux winemakers with whom I discussed the matter. The response of Château Lagrange director general Bruno Eynard is fairly typical: “I sometimes will blend [some of the previous vintage] into our third wine, but never in the estate wine or the second one.”

The European vintage rule relaxation was used as a competitive lever when California’s Wine Institute lobbied the United States regulatory agency, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), to loosen its regs from the meagre 5% permissible, arguing that the European Union, New Zealand and Australia allowed 15% blending, while Chile and South Africa permitted 25%.

Relief came with a caveat. A winery could now add up to 15% wine from another vintage to its vintage-dated wine – the same as the EU allowed – but it would not be allowed to place on its label a specific viticultural appellation or AVA. With the 15% solution, a wine is only permitted to mention a political or governmental region, such as the state or county.

Vega Sicilia’s Reserva Especial is a blend of three vintages

The other consumer-related question relates to how a customer will know how old a wine is without a vintage date. Providing sequential numbering of the blends on the front label as they are released has been one response, sometimes along with information on the back label about when a wine was bottled and/or released.

Ausàs says that he usually uses three vintages in his Reserva Especial blend, with two dominating. “In the legend on the label,” he says, “it gives information about the year of commercialisation” – when the wine is put up for sale – “and the vintages from which it is composed.”

In all likelihood, Sicilia Vega’s Reserva Especial will remain, for some time at least, an anomaly among Old World fine wines. At most, winemakers in the higher-value appellations may be tempted to do a little more vintage blending while retaining a vintage date. New World winemakers with good reputations, however, may begin feeling the itch to make a non-vintage, high- concept, high-priced marque. After all, it can be argued a vintage wine is only a snapshot of a time, while a non-vintage wine is a better snapshot of a terroir.

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