SNOOTILY, the guy at the next table dismissed his wine as “only some kind of blend”.
Undervaluing the magic of balancing the components of different grape varieties is, frankly, as daft as disparaging the master whisky blender’s craft. The French, in particular, have this process down to a wholly admirable art and even give it a sexy name – assemblage.
In Champagne, its key role is to marry together contributions from the main red and white grapes. Pinot noir is particularly important for adding body, structure and richness – it will almost certainly be responsible for any orange or honey touches in the finished wine. By contrast, Champagne’s white grape, chardonnay, usually brings delicacy and finesse, and is often the author of those crisper, orchard fruit components.
To see how these differences work in practice, compare three of Sainsbury’s well-made own-label Champagnes. Blanc de Noir (£20) has no chardonnay at all, while the Blanc de Blanc (£16, instead of £22.50, until 28 October) has nothing but. The excellent 2007 Taste the Difference Vintage Champagne (at a brilliant £25) is a 70:30 blend of chardonnay and pinot noir.
Blenders in the Rhône Valley have more choices. At least 13 varieties are permitted in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but most reds centre around three main ones. Syrah provides most of the assertive bramble and plum flavours in any blend (and some of any savoury and spicy touches too). Sturdy structure and a rich meatiness emanate from mourvèdre, while grenache introduces lightness, with hints of cinnamon and raspberry.
For an inexpensive example of this combination in practice (albeit from over the border in Spain) try Three Houses GSM Grenache Syrah Mourvèdre (£4.49 at Morrisons). Here, the blender’s skill delivers soft, warm and juicy fruit components – with flavours that range between damson and black cherries – but then neatly wraps them all in touches of mint and vanilla to create a pleasing, easy-drinking red.
Although subsidiary grape varieties are also involved in Bordeaux, there are two main players. One is the cherry and spice-influenced (and very approachable) merlot, while its regular companion is the more complex cabernet sauvignon – with its characteristic blackcurrant and mint flavours and greater longevity. The weather also complicates the blender’s task there because those varieties can ripen to different extents each year. Despite cabernet occupying many prime sites on the warm, well-drained gravel soil on the Garonne river’s left bank, a poor summer can leave it under-ripe and excessively acidic. Then more reliance is placed on merlot, which ripens earlier.
To see how skilful blending moulds those two varieties together look at the 2012 Chateau David Bordeaux (£6.50 at Sainsbury’s). Because merlot comprises 70 per cent of this blend, soft and fruity cherry flavours dominate, but there are attractive cinnamon and vanilla spices too.
Conversely, for more money, try the very impressive 2008 Tesco Finest Margaux (£24.99), where cabernet sauvignon rather than merlot provides the majority contribution (aided by a touch of petit verdot). Mellow blackcurrants open proceedings there, followed by herbs and mint, which all lead into a long finish.
These blends provide good illustrations of the practical effects of the assemblage craft. In particular, the margin by which the totality really does exceed the sum of the parts.
2009 DB Reserve Petite Sirah
South Eastern Australia, 13.5 per cent
Really nice fruity flavours drive this wine, with lots of blackcurrants and brambles on show. Those black fruits are joined by cinnamon, mint and vanilla to give a dense and concentrated red with soft tannins, bright acidity and a long, full finish.
£8.50 at Sainsbury’s
2013 MJ Janeil Gros Manseng Sauvignon
Côtes de Gascogne, France, 12 per cent
This unusual blend works brilliantly, relying on the sauvignon for freshness and lemon-based acidity, but the local gros manseng variety for greater depth. The result is a food-friendly, pear-centred texture with zesty, white peach fruit and a pleasing extra twist of lime-influenced tartness.
£7.75 at Oddbins