Oxford Town Wines

John JuergensHeresy or Silk Purses?

If I am not mistaken, when we consumers purchase a product, whether it is a car, a house, a suit, or a frozen pizza, we also acquire the right to do pretty much what we want with that product. We can add all sorts of accessories to the car, including fuzzy dice, to make it fit our desired image. We can remodel a house to accommodate our needs and preferences; we can alter the suit for a perfect fit; and we can enhance a pizza with any number of ingredients to make it taste like something other than cardboard.

So what is it about wine that makes it so sacrosanct that the idea of altering it a bit to make it more drinkable borders on heresy worthy of excommunication?

When we buy a bottle of wine, it is ours, we own it. We can choose to do what we want with it. We can drink it as is, pour it down the drain, or even waste it by breaking it over the bow of a new canoe. Wine is created so that it can be destroyed, preferably by your digestive system.

There are no wine police and no watchdog organizations such as the Society for the Prevention of the Adulteration of Wine. Therefore, there is no reason, and it makes no sense at all to suffer through or to throw out a bottle of wine that is not particularly to our liking. In other words, it is perfectly okay to adjust a wine to make it more palatable.

In fact, most wine makers all over the world have some type of procedure for adjusting the various components of their wines to make them more balanced and drinkable. For example, some of the European wine producing countries will add a bit of sugar to their fermenting wines because they have such a short growing season, which tends to result in grapes with high acid and low sugar. In hot climates like California and Australia they frequently add a bit of acid because the juice can be too soft or flabby by the time the grapes reach maturity.

Another fact that might surprise you is that the great majority of wines from France are blends of two or more grape types. Almost all Cabernet Sauvignon based wines from Bordeaux, for instance, are blended with Merlot and Cabernet Franc, and maybe a little bit of Petit Verdot. For example, the starting blend in a good year for Chateau Lafite-Rothschild consists of 68 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 18 percent Merlot, 13 percent Cabernet Franc, and 1 percent Petit Verdot. All of these other wines are added to make the Cabernet more drinkable, to give it more depth of flavor and color, and to allow it to age better. Depending on the growing conditions in any particular year, these proportions will be adjusted and can amount to as much as 35 percent - 45 percent of the wine.

An extreme case of this blending philosophy is the French red wine, Chateauneuf du Pape, which by law may contain as many as 13 different grape varieties, some of which can be white grapes.

However, in the U.S. a wine must contain at least 75 percent of a single grape type in order to call it by its varietal name, i.e., Merlot, Chardonnay, etc. But the other 25 percent can be just about anything and the winery does not have to identify on the label what that other stuff is. For years I have heard statements that some of the producers of the very low end jug wines added things like apple and other fruit juices to their wines to give them depth of flavor and fruitiness.

I hope I have made my point about it being okay to diddle with your wine. Now for some blending tips.

Let's say you bought a new white wine, a Pinot Grigio, because a lot of people have been talking about this grape type lately as an alternative to Chardonnay. The problem with Pinot Grigio, or Pinot Gris, as some wine makers call it, is that it tends to be all over the wine map in terms of fruitiness and sweetness. I have had samples that were as sweet as a White Zinfandel and others that were so dry they tasted like they had been filtered through the Sahara Desert.

Suppose your wine falls into this latter category and it is so dry that it curls your toes as if you were sucking on an unripe grapefruit. There are several ways to make this wine drinkable.

First, you can cut it with increasing amounts of something like Sprite, 7-Up, or white grape juice (plain or sparkling) until you get it to where you can drink it without your eyes getting all squinty. This is the basic method of making a wine spritzer. A second way to salvage the wine would be to blend it with another sweeter wine such as a Chenin Blanc or a Riesling, or maybe a Chardonnay to soften the wine and to add a bit of fruitiness. I usually start with a 50-50 mixture of a small amount of the two wines and adjust in the direction that I prefer.

And there is nothing to say you can't use a red wine to do the blending. For example, the other day I had a challenging white wine to which I added about an ounce of sweet red port to about 4 ounces of the wine. The result was a delightful blend with a beautiful light red color with soft edges, greater body, and just a hint of sweetness.

The same strategy can be used with red wines, which can be too tannic or puckery for many people. I had a Spanish Merlot like this and I first tried adding port to soften it up, and then in a second test I added a bit of Chardonnay. Both took the edge off and added complexity to the wine that made it far more interesting and easier to drink.

On the flip side, you might have a wine that is just plain dull and flat, which normally is caused by a lack of acid. In this case, you want to jump start it by blending it with a nice tart wine such as a Sauvignon Blanc or that Pinot Grigio that gave you a sour wine face.

I have been doing this blending trick for many years and have salvaged a lot of wine while rarely coming up with a blend that was worse than the original wines. This is also a good strategy when you attend a function at which they are serving your basic White Zin, and a mediocre Chardonnay and Cabernet. Rather than retreat to a beer or a mixed drink, you can get a glass of White Zin and blend it with one of the other wines, or make a spritzer out of the Chardonnay with a clear soft drink.

I know the wine purists will scoff at my blending practices. But they can struggle through wines with so much acid they could be used to make a car battery, or that are so tannic they can be used to cure animal hides, if they want. Not me. If I can turn a pig's ear into a silk purse, I'll rise above my principles in a heartbeat.

This theme of blending wines leads me to my wine pick of the week, which is a series of blended wines from Kendall Jackson. Their latest effort in the under $15 category is a group of very interesting wines consisting of a Cabernet Sauvignon - Shiraz, a Cabernet - Merlot, and an unusual Zinfandel - Shiraz blend. These wines are intended for easy drinking now with bold flavors and aromas. The KJ wine makers have managed to find the proportion of grape types that allows each to show its primary personality while reinforcing the other. These wines are as good as they are going to get, so there is no reason to lay them down for aging. They sell for about $10 and work very nicely as cocktail wines or can go well with all sorts of entrées. Cheers!

March 19, 2002

To contact John Juergens, write him at wineguy@vista-express.com

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