by Margaret Rand

Knowing When To Stop

The other week Domaine de Chevalier brought over samples of the 19 components of its 2022 red grand vin, plus a sample of the final blend. I’ve always thought blending a form of magic – the production, out of a hat, of something more than the sum of its parts – but is blending easier or more difficult when the components are all so good in themselves? To produce something good from unpromising components is a coup de théâtre; to produce something superb from excellence is – what? Less surprising, perhaps.

The samples varied immensely. Obviously some were aromatic, some tannic, some fleshy. The wines from old vines had a calm, collected air. Others were alert, or graceful, or juicy, or muscular. There was a Cabernet Sauvignon you could have mistaken for Merlot; and the Merlots did not (mercifully) taste very Merlot-ish. One Cabernet Sauvignon was surprisingly commonplace. One was so complete that many producers would have bottled it alone, and thought themselves fortunate.

The final wine, after all that, could not be a surprise. But it was multi-layered and fascinating, tight and satisfying, and it will be great. And it showed that the art of blending is knowing when to stop. Go on too long, add too much, and the total might be less than the sum of its parts. What we didn’t see at this tasting was all the other samples that hadn’t made the cut for the grand vin.

It’s easiest to see this balance in food. At one restaurant recently – a highly regarded joint with a Michelin star – a waiter stood in front of us before each course and gabbled off the ingredients and techniques while we looked at the tweezered exquisiteness on our plates. After all that, mere eating was bound to be a bit of a let-down, not helped by the fact that it all tasted a bit beige. Too many flavours, which cancelled each other out. And some weeks later I had dinner at Claude Bosi at Bibendum (I know, I have a hellish existence) where the food was just as exquisite, but palate-shockingly wonderful. (And went perfectly with Ornellaia Bianco, which was the point of the dinner, and which added another dimension to the blend of flavours.)

Another example: there is a thing called grated caviar. Roger Jones, late of The Harrow at Little Bedwyn, told me about it: it comes in a block, and it’s caviar and salt, dried. You grate it over things to add, according to the producer, ‘a perfect caviar flavour’. But caviar is about texture, isn’t it? Is this not removing the most interesting part of a product, the single aspect that most defines it?

Which brings us, obviously, to grape skins. Are grape skins the aspect of grapes that most define them? Ferment Pinot Noir without the skins and you might get something (as in Champagne, or indeed England) something that still tastes recognisably of red fruit. Or you might get, as I tasted recently from New Zealand, something that tastes cloyingly of boiled sweets – pear drops, to be precise, with their acetone note. Yet this was supposed to be premium, was fermented with indigenous yeasts, and cost £33 retail. (Perhaps it will improve with age.) I asked why they’d made it (for which read, Why? Just Why?). The answer was that the producer normally made only reds, and got tired of waiting at tastings while everybody did the whites before they got to the reds.

Skin-fermented white wines? Now there’s a subject. I like them, usually, but are they a greater or truer expression of the grape? Who is qualified to say? What we think of as varietal character is simply what we’re used to; and Chardonnay fermented on its skins does not have the flavours we’re used to. Skin-fermented whites of any variety tend to taste more like other skin-fermented whites than they do conventional versions of the same grape. But again, is it just a question of what we’re used to? When you’re a child, other children look wildly different, but grown-ups can look a bit alike. The older you get the more children look indistinguishable from each other, while your own generation remains hugely disparate. Had I all been brought up on skin-fermented whites I would probably be saying that all whites pressed off their skins tasted the same.

Blending a wine means not just producing something that is more than the sum of its parts, without either not going far enough, or going too far and going into reverse; it also means producing something that is recognisably itself.

With climate change, that can mean doing things very differently to produce the same result. No, not exactly the same result, because styles evolve; but something recognisable, with the same personality. At that Domaine de Chevalier tasting consultant Stefan Derenencourt said that ‘in 1982 we discovered we could make wine from ripe grapes’. And Olivier Bernard said that ‘in 2022 perhaps we learnt how to make the wine of the future’. (They have a gift for bons mots, those two.) This can mean a gentle movement in Bordeaux away from Bordeaux barriques: Olivier has just bought some new 50-litre foudres. ‘The further south you go the more you see bigger sizes of barrel. We have to learn from the South,’ he says. Twenty years ago tasting notes of Bordeaux would not have used the word ‘floral’, except perhaps in Margaux and its classic note of violets. Now it comes to mind quite a lot. There’s less acidity now. Yet Domaine de Chevalier 1953 and 1983 clearly had the same DNA as 2022.

In Champagne we’ve seen house after house abandoning the consistency of non-vintage and embracing inconsistency; blending to consistency was never the easiest option, but now no longer looks the best option. But climate change has not been the only influence on style change in the past. Back in the 1980s Burgundy changed drastically when it was no longer permitted to blend in wine from outside the region to create the flavours with which consumers were familiar. They complained, loudly: Burgundy was suddenly light and insubstantial, they said, and that was wrong. They wanted the old beefiness back, the sturdiness that had for so long been propped up on wines from North Africa. God knows what went into those blending vats before ‘Pommard’ or ‘Nuits St Georges’ emerged from them. Was it more than the sum of its parts? Yes – by several hundred miles.

Photo by Daniele Franchi on Unsplash