The Art of Blending

wine glasses formed in pattern

By: Tom Payette – Winemaking Consultant  

Blending is an excellent resource to make improvements in wines.  To do it properly takes time, work and organization. Standing in the cellar and walking from wine vessel to wine vessel roughly pouring the quantities from glass to glass in estimation of what a blend will be like is not acceptable.  Beyond the practical applications it is a great time to review overall winemaking quality and to plan the upcoming winemaking schedule for the year.  Following these steps will result in better quality wines, more cellar organization and fluid production parameters for any winery whether making 2000 cases or 40,000 cases and beyond.  These sessions give the winemaker long-term direction and will keep others in the winery better informed and involved with what is happening in the cellar.

  In this article, I will go into detail with a step-by- step analysis how a blending session can be performed.  This process gives a platform to taste and review all of the winery’s products and make blends in a systematic session outside of the cellar. One should be dedicated to this process.  The first blending session may have some disjointed moments but don’t let that discourage the process.  By the third session one should be on top of all aspects of this process and ready to build on it to make it an even better operation for their winery.  Take the time to follow this process from sampling on through to the follow-up report.  It works!

1)  First, establish a set of goals for the blending session.  Most of the time the goal will be to meet a certain style of wines that have the consistency of previous vintages or better.  One can establish other goals as needed to fit the particular set of circumstances in the cellar.  Goals such as blending a reserve style blend for a particular wine variety and then making subsequent blends is a perfect start.  Always taste past vintages of these same wines from the wine library. This will give great information as to how wines are holding up in the bottle and help remember the earlier wines and how they were crafted.  Collect winemaking data of these past vintages for review should that be necessary.  If one marvels over a competitor’s wine, then purchase some of that wine and put it into the initial blind tasting.  It may help move your wine style in the direction desired.  Try to answer this question before, during and after the blending session: “Do we know where we are with our wines and where we are trying to go”? Asking yourself and the others this question will help the winery move the wines forward.

2)  The Next step in a successful blending session is collecting the samples early.  Go into the cellar, at least one week prior to the scheduled blending day, and pull all the samples needed in sufficient quantities.  Usually at least one 750 ml sample of each large lot will be sufficient for a two person blending session.  Perhaps a 375 ml sample of the smaller lots will suffice.  When in doubt – collect multiple 750 milliliter samples of one lot.  (If using this article, as a client of mine, lets please touch base to discuss sample sizes and participants in the blending session)  Make sure these samples represent the lot of wine.  If twenty barrels are in the lot – try and pull the sample from at least 10 representative barrels to make sure it is uniform.  If a certain wine is in two distinct sets of wine storage conditions, take samples of each and indicate the differences.  If the sample does not represent the wine it is supposed to, a successful blending session can not be performed.  If older lots of a certain wine remain in the cellar, sample them as well. It may help to round out the newer vintage blend.  Take samples of anything that does not already have a direction in your winemaking plan and that may even remotely have a chance of adding to the blend.  All the way down to carboys if you have them. If looking to purchase wines in bulk, have those samples sent to you well ahead of time with their respective chemistries.

3)  Pull the wine samples in the same style glass bottle to eliminate the influence of preference, or lack thereof.  The wines will be tasted blind and one would not want to influence the tasters by having the glass bottle, color or style tip the taster’s hand. (It happens!)  Using a t-top closure is the best for these samples to save time.  This will make it easier to remove the cork at the blending table and prevent fumbling clumsily through the opening of each bottle while pulling a cork.

4)  Mark each bottle with the lot code, vintage year, variety, quantity and any other data deemed important – for example “new French oak” or “malo-lactic”. Place the bottles into brown bags or wine bottle bags all of the same style.  This action, will again, prevent any bias resulting from remembering what wine went into which bag.  Randomly move the bottles around to facilitate the blind tasting process for yourself (optional).  After shuffling the wines around sufficiently, label them in a number or letter sequence and place, in flights, into boxes.  This process should be completed one week prior to the actual blending session and the wines should be stored upright to allow any sediment to form on the bottom of the bottle.

5)  Collect background data on each of the wines to be presented at the blending table.  This information should include harvest data, fermentation data (yeast, temp, enzymes etc), a full chemistry panel (ph, TA, so2, VA, malic, alcohol etc.)  Record this data on a spreadsheet for copies to be distributed to every member of the tasting panel at the appropriate time.  Speak with the owner or sales department to get information on sales data for each product.  This will help determine how much of a given blend that should be made.  Collect current inventories, on hand, in both case storage and bulk wine – if more of a current blend is to be bottled.

6)  With the above information in hand make a “wish list”, independent of what known volumes you have on hand, for all wines to be blended.  Make this wish list up with volumes needed for the business goals.  So :: each varietal, each vintage and how much of each to make.  This is very important to make the blending day run smooth.

7)  When all of the wines and information are collected for the blending session, take time to remind the other members on the blending team of the date, time and location of the blending session.  Remind them not to wear smelly colognes or perfumes that day and to dress comfortably.  (There is no need to wear a tie as it may only drag through a glass of wine as one reaches across the table).

8)  The day prior to the blending session collect the other items necessary in the room to be used.  Check the wine glasses for potential cardboard dust odors or other off smells and wash them if necessary.  Check the actual room for off odors, paint smells, or other odors that may interfere with aroma evaluation.  Place a white table cloth on the table to be used.  For all the items to be used try to eliminate any colors to have mostly white and clear objects present.  For each sitting area have the wine glasses fanned out, in a semi-circle, in the quantity necessary to accommodate the largest flight of wines.  Have room to add about four more glasses to evaluate blends as they are made.  At these place settings have a water glass, pencils, paper, cracker dish and a spit cup.  At one end of the table have several graduated cylinders, beakers, and pipettes all of varying quantities.  Place several calculators on the table for use as mathematical questions may arise.  If your tap water has an off flavor, or a slight odor, use distilled water or bottled water for the sessions rinse water and drinking water.  Gather several clean 5 gallon buckets and place them in the room to assist dumping the glasses of wine after each session.

Okay! Now we are set up and ready for our blending day.

9)  The morning of the blending session have everyone gather in the room and take their place setting.  Give them an overview of what they will be doing but be careful not to reveal any information on the wines that are bagged and to be tasted blind.  Start with the first blind flight of wine.  This most often will be a primary focus wine flight of past vintages that have been made by the winery.  Older vintages help one understand what the consumer has been purchasing, how the lots are aging and what characteristic one may want to enhance or refine for future vintages.  Try to evaluate at least three vintages.  It is best to have six, seven or more if the winery has that many years under its belt.  This is a good time to slip in a competitors bottle that the winery has discussed trying to emulate.  Perhaps slip in a well known brand to see how your wine compares.  Pour the wines from left to right and make sure that everyone has them in the same order.  This will eliminate confusion when speaking and critiquing the wines.  Taste through each wine and take notes.  Indicate the positive and negative attributes of each wine on paper.  Allow as much time as necessary to thoroughly go through each wine and do it with complete silence and no discussion.

10)  After ample tasting time, have each member that feels comfortable doing so, talk briefly about each wine.  Perhaps have them rank the wines or select their favorites and mention why.  Keep a rough tally of the table’s favorites.  Is there a consensus?  Do most people have a favorite or dislike?  Zero in on the positive attributes of those favorite wines and mentally lock in those flavors and aromas.

11)  Unveil the wines and reveal their labels or contents.  Keep them in the order that the glasses are on the table so each one can record what wine goes with his or her notes.  Speak a little about each wine as it is unveiled and then allow some time after all the wines are exposed for light discussion and possible surprises that people have commented on.  Collectively agree with the rest of the table what three or four wines may be needed to evaluate the next blend, refresh the pours into the glasses and ask them to put them aside.  Mark their glasses with a pen or simply have some white paper in front of them and label the place setting for that particular wine.  Clear the table of the left over glasses of wine by dumping the contents into the dump buckets.  Cork the remaining bottles for potential future evaluation and remove them from the table.  Rinse all the glasses lightly and take a small break.

12)  During or shortly after the break, start to pour the next blind flight.  This flight will be all the bulk wines and blends from the cellar that will be possible candidates to help make the next vintage of the previous wines just evaluated.  Be sure to include any older lots of wine that have been left behind in the cellar for one reason or another.  If an older wine is being blended perhaps taste and reach out for a newer vintage that may increase the fruitiness and freshness of the wine.  Taste and evaluate silently all of the potential components for the next blend.  Take notes and express the positive and negative attributes of each wine.  Rank them and discuss them after everyone has had time to evaluate them.  Reveal the bottles’ contents to the panel of tasters and perhaps have some light discussion about the wines, what vineyard blocks they came from and other possible factors that may add to the table. 

13)  After discussion, take a look at the quantities and chemistries you have of each wine in the cellar that is represented at the table.  Express those quantities to the rest of the table so they can help with the formulation of potential blends.  Have a pre-made spreadsheet with all the information needed and simply pass that out to the members to save time.  Now we have all of the information on the table to make our first blend!  (Whew – yes this is a task that takes time, energy and focus!) 

14)  First, formulate a blend on paper that may guide your new wine in the direction that you would like to see it go.  Take a look at the wines that will add the most to the new blend.  Start with several “paper blends” and make them at the table. [This may be done blind with the other tasting members excused.] Use the graduated cylinders, beaker, pipettes and other measuring devices to make the blends in the quantities that will fit the volume needed.  If the quality will allow more and the sales of the winery will allow it – make more.  If the quality will not allow a reserve blend, review the potential of not making one.  After the table blends are made, make sure to mix them well and then pour a portion of those blends for each person at the table. Pull the previously tagged glasses from the prior flight forward and taste the new blend up against the older vintages.

15)  Take time, with silence, for each member to evaluate the wines and select one or two that reflects an improvement on the previous vintages.  Discuss the wines and potentially make more sample blends, for the same wine, while refining and focusing the desired qualities.  Keep doing this process until an agreement can be reached as to which blend is the best.  Once that is done, subtract the volumes used for that blend from the spreadsheet and indicate the quantities that are remaining to work with.

  Dump and rinse the glasses that will no longer be used for the next blending flight.  Any glasses one decides to keep, be sure and mark accordingly and keep off to ones side.

16)  Now prepare for the next flight to be tasted blind.  Pull the next flight of library wines to the table to make the next level of quality for that style.  For example if the first flight was to make a “Meritage style blend” perhaps the next level will be a Reserve style or Premium blend.  Be careful not to use a descriptor such as “Regular Cabernet” because there should be nothing regular about it!  It also gets many in the winery referring to a blend in a non premium fashion. Taste just as we did before {blind and in silence} the next flight of library wines that correlates to the next wine that will be focused on and blended.  Once the tasting is completed discuss the wines with the table and start to focus on the next blend to be made.  This process can be repeated as often as necessary until all the wines have been made.  Once you are finished with the primary focus wines you can move into another quality tier.  Depending on the size of the winery one can work on reds one day and whites the second.  If some red wine will be needed to enhance a blush or rose, remember to hold that back during the previous sessions. 

17)  Once the process is complete be sure to compile all the information and double check the quantities assigned during the blending session.  Do this the next day if possible.  Make copies of the spreadsheet and pass them out to the participants and others at the winery.  If a mistake has been made it is much easier to regroup and find alternatives while the information is still fresh on the minds of the team.  Sit back and look at the complete picture the blending session has drawn for the cellar. Make sure new product lines were not left out or that the session will fulfill the year’s sales goals as best as possible.

18)  This process can be very daunting at first but once a system is in place it becomes second nature like anything else.  I like this process because it enhances the wine quality and it gives the cellar long-term direction.  One blend isn’t jeopardized because another one was made.  The winemaking team can move the wines forward, cohesively, in the cellar at a pace that should not be rushed.  Dry goods needs such as labels, corks, capsules and bottles can all be investigated and set up to arrive at the winery as needed.  The winery has a summary of the wine compositions and the exact blend percentages can be calculated.  This helps one put together a bottling schedule well into the next 6 months or longer.

19)  If many wines are remaining, at the end of the sessions, with “no home” discuss what some of the potential options are for those wines.  Will they get better?  Should they be offered for bulk sale? What is the future of the left overs?  Will there be enough cellar space to carry them over the next harvest?  Will it hamper the quality of the next harvest through “forced blending” due to cellar space issues?

Summary:

  Once this process has been performed several times it will become very systematic.  One can perform this process twice a year.  Perform the first blending session in the winter and another just prior to harvest.  This will help “shore up” loose ends in the cellar and prepare the cellar for the upcoming harvest.  The preharvest blending session is a great time to review fining trials on wines that may need refinement.  One can prepare these wines well in advance and taste them with others, blind, to get a true perspective to the best fining agents for a particular refinement.

  The success of a blending session is based on tasting the representative wine samples blind.  Getting the wines out of the cellar and evaluating them blind will help assemble blends without bias.  Try this process and give it at least three sessions over the next two years.  You will find the quality of the wines will improve, the cellar team will be better informed and focused and the complete winery team will all be aware as to the status of the wines.  It is the final touch to the winemaking art form.

Wine Blending Checklist

Objective:  To make the best possible blend(s) from the components of wine available in the cellar or off premise bulk wine.

Material Checklist:

4Wine bottles 4Wine bottle bags 4T-tops

4Magic markers – permanent (can be removed with ethyl alcohol) 4Adhesive labels for bottles

4Wine glasses – the small Viticole 7.25 oz glass is a nice “average” glass for this. 4Water glasses 4Pencils 4Paper 4Crackers 4Cracker dish

4Graduated Cylinders (multiple sizes) – 25 mil, 50 mil, 100 mil, 250 mil, 500 mil •Beakers – 500 milliliters 4Pipettes – [ 2 ] serological 10 milliliter

4White tablecloth – optional but nice. Large white paper is best. 4Spit cups 4Dump buckets (3) 4Distilled water

•  Be sure to collect samples from all lots in the cellar.

•  Recent data on wines to be tasted – organized and ready to answer questions.

•  Data on quantities to make – firm volumes known ahead of the day.

•  Sales data and current bulk wine data – more for your internal needs – not mine.

•  Current bottled wine data – again – to help you understand sales rates and needs.

4Calculators

4Past vintage wines and / or competitor’s wines

4Cork screw

4Quiet room

4An open mind and a great tasting team (….. but not too many people )

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