Understanding Domestic Classic Cuvées
Creating distinctive cuvées is equal parts science and art. To produce a well made wine, winemakers must know their grape varieties intimately, with extensive knowledge about each of the grape’s characteristics and how they interact when introduced to other grape varieties. Winemakers who do this well produce wines with harmonious flavors and exceptional balance, which go on to become some of the world’s most intriguing and sought-after wines.
A Blended History
In many parts of the world, wine blends are not only revered, but are often more common than varietal wines. In fact, some of the world’s most iconic wines, like Bordeaux, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and Rioja are blends. But, here in the U.S., the evolution of the red wine blend has been a bit more convoluted.
The early American red blends (the Mondavis and the Gallos of the 1970s), which started out as cheap, dry wines, were seen as low quality. They were not particularly favored by the preceding generations, and so the wines shifted to sweeter and more smooth profiles. This modern approach launched a popular red wine blend category that became recognizable as distinctly American.
Domestic red blends have continued to evolve over decades, with some producers moving away from those early models, now focusing on crafting sophisticated and nuanced cuvées that more closely resemble the Old World classics with centuries of winemaking tradition behind them, earning a rightful place in any wine aficionado’s cellar.
As consumers have become more wine savvy, there has been increased demand for New World wines that still pay homage to the Old World style of wine they’re modeling. Today’s red wine blends are subsequently experiencing blockbuster success, in fact, in 2021, Nielson data reports revealed red table blends as the second highest seller for red wine sales in the U.S., even surpassing Champagne.
In With The New
“Cuvées allow winemakers a blank canvas to create beautiful wines that are not limited to single varietal wines,” says Chris Dukelow, co-owner and co-winemaker at Ducleaux Cellars. “They allow us to create more depth, layers, and balance.”
Ducleaux Cellars, which is located in The Rocks District of Milton Freewater AVA, in many ways has similar terroir to Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The 13 varieties grown in Chȃteauneuf-du-Pape do extremely well in the stony vineyard sites of The Rocks District, with characteristics similar to their Old World lineage. Ducleaux Cellars is making a broad selection of mostly blended wines from a wide variety of these grapes.
“The French have been doing these blends for 100s of years and have probably learned a few things as they passed knowledge from generation to generation,” Dukelow acknowledges. “We strive to learn from them while still taking some liberty and being creative with a little [sic] non-traditional blends.”
“Our goal is to [produce wines that are] similar to Old World Rhône wines, and for most of our lineup, we think the average consumer would have difficulty deciding which is which in a blind tasting,” says Dukelow. “That said, The Rocks District creates some very unique flavor profiles that you will not find anywhere else in the World.”
Dukelow maintains that traditional Old World wines have a considerable influence on their style. “In 2019 we traveled the Rhône Valley, visiting a number of different wineries and talking to a number of winemakers. The eye opener for us was that they don’t use new oak; it just doesn’t exist. Everything is in large old oak vessels or large concrete tanks lined with epoxy. Since then, we’ve generally adopted those practices by not influencing our wines with new oak.”
The Wild West of the Willamette Valley
Patrick Taylor, winemaker at Cana’s Feast in Oregon, makes a wide variety of blends in addition to his varietal wines. He maintains a healthy respect for Old World wines while being able to apply his own creative spin. “The New World freedom allows us the ability to create new styles,” Taylor says. “For example, our Giassiagio is inspired by the Piedmont region and is a blend of Dolcetto, Barbera, and Nebbiolo.”
While Taylor tries to stay as focused as possible on traditional European blends, like their Joie de Vivre (a Rhône-inspired blend of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Counoise), he says “Our Montagna Rossa is a Super Tuscan, a wine that by its very nature is unrestricted by tradition and laws.” The history of Super Tuscan wines really resonated with Taylor; they’re wines that tell the story of younger generations bucking against hundreds of years of tradition. Taylor’s Super Tuscan is an intriguing blend of Sangiovese, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc — think Tuscany meets Bordeaux. “At first I thought it wasn’t traditional enough for our portfolio, but our general manager wanted it, and he practically dragged me to the blending table, kicking and screaming. Now it’s become one of the wines I reach for on a regular basis; it’s such a great food wine.”
“Here in the New World, we’ve learned a great deal and benefit from centuries of tradition, practice, trial and error about what works.” Taylor says. “But we’re also less restrictive about what happens when we blend classic grapes with other grapes. And though the tradition provides longevity, perhaps a little freedom is something the Old World could benefit from. I like to travel to European wine regions for inspiration, to see the continuity, but I also like a little ‘Maverickness’ that New World wines allow.”
Old World in the New World
In Paso Robles, an area well known for creating wines in the spirit of both Bordeaux and the Rhône Valley, you’ll find Tablas Creek, co-founded by a family that has been making great wines for over a century. Winemaker Jason Haas says, “Our idea was always to start with what France does as our baseline and then adjust as we felt appropriate based on what we’ve learned about our own place.”
“The founding idea behind Tablas Creek was to bring the inspiration of Chateauneuf-du-Pape to California,” Haas says. “Chȃteauneuf-du-Pape is famously a blending region, so it’s a part of our DNA from the beginning. Plus, these grapes fit beautifully together, allowing the strengths to show while covering for each other’s weaknesses.”
According to Haas, there are probably more similarities than there are differences when you compare Tablas Creek’s wines to Old World wines. “But you can usually taste the climate in which they’re grown, and our wines are a little more primary, with more expression of fruit and acid and less of earth when they’re young than their French counterparts. But as the wines age they become more Old World in style.”
“Our goal isn’t to make an Old World wine, or a copy of an Old World wine. It is to choose grapes that seemed to be a great fit for our specific spot in the New World, and then make wines that would do the best possible job at showing off the character of the place that we chose,” explains Haas. “We feel that these grapes are particularly good when blended together. But the goal is still to make a wine that people will taste and think could only have come from Tablas Creek.”
A Shared Vision
At Troon Vineyard in Oregon’s Applegate Valley, the goal is to make unique wines that do taste different than Old World wines. “We are certainly inspired by the wines of the Northern Rhône, but we are not trying to make Côte Rotie,” says Craig Camp, Troon’s general manager. “We’ve planted twenty grape varieties with a primary focus on creating blends. Those blends will be based on the character of the wines produced by each variety, to create more nuanced, balanced, and complex wines.”
Camp says that their wines are similar to Old World wines in that they are naturally higher in acid and moderate in alcohol, but points out that one of the greatest differences in Troon’s wines versus Old World wines is due to their vineyard’s location. “The Pacific Ocean is the major driver in our climate and makes the Applegate unique from any other region. We make our wines to allow those unique characteristics to show through.”
Aaron Lieberman, winemaker of Iris Vineyards, has a similar philosophy. “I do love Rhône wines like Chȃteauneuf-du-Pape and Bordeaux wines like St. Émilion. But it is not my objective to emulate those wines because I don’t have access to their grapes,” Lieberman says. “In general I avoid making those comparisons because I think each grape variety expresses itself differently in any given vineyard. From a winemaking standpoint, we do employ some traditional techniques like manual punchdown in smaller lots. But I avoid allowing microbial activity like Brettanomyces as I feel it interferes with fruit expression. My emphasis is on purity of fruit.”
While it’s exciting to see how the New World’s domestic winemakers are recognizing and honoring the Old World in their modern day cuvées, these wines seem to be more about combining tradition with their own land’s terroir. Applying this approach, and discovering the perfect combinations of grapes from their specific regions, creates a certain magic and a new style that could just as well be called The New Old World Blends.