Blending To Improve Homemade Wines
By Ed Kraus
On the surface there doesn’t seem to be much to blending home made wines when compared to the rest of the home wine making process. Blending, in itself, is a physically simple task. You take one wine and stir it with another, and the result is a wine that tastes a little like both. Doesn’t seem hard to try.
In reality, blending is a deceptive business that goes beyond the stirring of a spoon. Like quicksand waiting for its next meal, unsuspecting first-time blenders are lured into doom by the easy appearance of blending. If they would have only been armed with a basic understanding of the basic concepts involved, their chances of success would have been greatly enhanced and the ability to capitalize on their previous home wine making efforts magnified.
From a commercial wine making standpoint the primary function of blending is to help the winery keep a consistent product from bottle to bottle. Blending among the various storage vessels of a particular vintage cancels out any variation created that year from a number of sources, such as: differences that exist from more than one vineyard, differences that develop from one fermentation container to the next, different tannin levels between barrels, etc.
The second most common reason to blend wines is to keep the non-varietals consistent from one year to the next. This is a little more involved than blending across a particular vintage. The first requires a limited amount of skill and is almost routine in nature from a general wine making standpoint, whereas the later requires one’s ability to taste and blend their way to a creation that matches what was produced the year before.
Neither of these types of blending is what this article is about. While noble tools for the wine making industry, from an amateur winemaker's perspective blending for these reasons has little value. What we are really interested in is the third reason wineries often blend their wines, that is to improve them, to blend two or more wines and make them into something more spectacular than they each would be on their own; to make one plus one equal at least three.
This is a more masterful side to blending that not only requires an understanding of its mechanics, as do the former reasons for blending, but also requires a wine making palate with some finesse and an ability to envision a flavorful outcome. Some may accelerate more than others in their ability to blend wines, but one thing is for certain, no one can gain this talent without experience.
The Mechanics Of Blending Homemade Wine
There is a small part to blending wines that is quantifiable and non-subjective, a part of blending that is completely predictable. For example, if you have a wine with a titrated acid level of 1.10% and blend it with a wine that reads .55%, then the laws of science will easily tell you that upon blending the two wines the resulting creation will have a tartaric percentage somewhere between 1.10% and .55%. And to go a step further, if you know the proportions or the ratio of the two wines to be used in the blending, then through math you can predict exactly what the resulting acid level will be in the blend.
The same prediction can be applied to any measurable feature of a wine: residual sugar, color, alcohol, volatile acid, etc.
Taking measurements allows you to have some control of the outcome. For example, knowing the alcohol level of both wines to be potentially blended gives you the power to control the ending alcohol level. This does not tell you how the finished blend is going to taste, but it does allow you to keep control of the measurable wine making features of a wine when blending.
Knowing the measurable profiles of the wines to be potentially blended is the starting point for any blending challenge. By knowing as many measurable features as possible, you can then begin to determine some blending parameters. This will help you to focus on the blends that are actually possible realities.
The Pearson Square is a visual math tool that can help even the most inept at math determine blending ratios of two wines to achieve an quantifiable outcome. In our above example of blending wines with two different acid levels, one being .55% the other 1.10%, we can use the Pearson Square to determine the ratio needed to obtain any desired acidity level between .55% and 1.10%. In this example we a shooting for an acid level of .70%.
| 55 40 |
| 70 |
| 110 15 |
The top left corner and the bottom left corner represent the acid level of the two wines to be blended. The center number is the acid level we want to achieve. The two numbers on the right are numbers that you calculate. The 15 is simply the difference between 55 and 70, and like wise the 40 is the difference between 110 and 70.
The 15 and the 40 now represent the blending ratio of the wines that would result in the desired acid level; 40 parts of .55% wine and 15 parts of 1.10% wine. In this case the answers can be reduced by the common divisor of 5 to to be 8 parts and 3 parts respectively. The point here is take measurements and follow through with calculations. Consider this a starting point. Take advantage of what little science blending has to offer, use it to your best advantage for it will be the foundation upon which your palate’s learned blending abilities will have to build.
The Breakable Rules Of Blending Homemade Wine
On the whole, blending to improve wines is more like an art than a science, and like any art there are some basic rules, and like art, these rules are allowed to be broken or simply set aside by the contrary opinion of one artist’s tastes.
What follows is a list of “breakable” rules. These are rules that have not only been picked up from reading over the years, but mostly from my own wine making experiences and by observing the results of other winemakers. They are listed in order from the least breakable to the most breakable:
- Blend wines that are fundamentally sound. Don’t treat blending as a cure for a sick wine. The wines most suitable for blending are the ones with considerable quality but might have a single correctable defect. Wines that create a whole wish-list of “wants” seldom are candidates for successful blending.
- Have a specific reason for blending or have a specific goal you are trying to reach though blending. Don’t just blend because you want to make a wine better, be specific. For example, know that you are blending to adjust a particular fundamental feature of a wine such as acidity, color, and residual sugar. And, also know what measurement you want that feature to read. Or from a more subjective point, know that you are blending to alter a nuance of a wine such as its herbal undertones. Or, you may have a commercially available wine you would like to simulate and that is your ultimate goal.
- Do test blendings with small amounts before blending in bulk. If possible have some one help you. Have them mix a variety of blended ratios of two wines, say 4 or 5 different combinations, then you and others can do a blind tasting. Let your favorite blending choice be the guide to fine tune the next set of blendings to be blindly tasted, and so on. Once you feel you have produced the ultimate combination, you might even consider bringing a third wine into the picture. This can obviously go on to an endless number of rounds and with an endless number of wines which brings up two drastically important points. As an amateur blender if you don’t get anything else out of this article get this: as hard as it may seem sometimes, try not to swallow your sips, have a bucket handy to spit in. The second point is observe rule number four.
- When you feel you have reached a blending decision, wait at least a day before taking action. This will give your palate a chance to unwind and re-taste the blending from a fresh and sometimes more sober standpoint. Blending is not something to be rushed, but something to be done with solid footsteps and a reasonable amount of certainty. Take a step back and reconsider all the characteristics of the chosen blend in a more holistic fashion. Forget about analyzing it. What is your overall impression as a wine drinker after the first sip or two?
- Fine or filter wines after blending, not before blending. If you filter your wines, it is best two wait a few days after blending. Every so often reactions between two or more wines can cause various precipitations to occur. This is for the most part an unpredictable phenomenon and should be just thought of as something that rarely happens and easily solvable through filtration and/or finings.
- Blend wines that are from the same year. Blending wines from different years, in general, does not work as well as wines blended from the same year. Wines blended from different years seem to have more instances of precipitation. These types of blends also seem to pull the older vintage back to a youthful harshness even though it may have been almost at its ultimate age for consumption.
- Blend wines that are similar in character. It is much safer and easier to blend wines of similar or like type than it is to blend wines that are dissimilar. For example, blend heavy Reds with heavy Reds, just as Cabernet is often blended with Merlot. Or maybe, a little peach wine with some Reisling. But, attempting to blend a Merlot with a Reisling, while possible through luck, is not likely to increase the quality of your cellar stock.
Blending Wines By Design
Understanding “the mechanics” and “the rules” of blending gives the novice blender a much needed path to follow. The blender should observe the breakable rules and use them as a foundation. The blender should take measurements of the wines to be potentially blended so that they can know what cards are being dealt. But the fact can not be ignored that all these “rules” and “measurements” are only secondary to the real issue of, “how does the wine taste?”
To become the best at blending, one must learn how to identify a particular wine’s strengths before they can continue on to improve upon that wine — understand what specific features gives the wine an appealing impression. What makes the wine stand out among the rest? What gives it distinction? Is it the wine’s unusually light, crisp fruitiness? Or, is it the rich, deep berry assertiveness? Or is it the unique way the wine starts on the tongue with its deep berry flavors and ends up cleanly with a light, crisp fruity aftertaste?
Understanding a wines weaknesses is just as important, but usually easier to identify. Quite often it is an awkward aftertaste or a lack of roundness in flavor, making the drinking experience flat or one dimensional and uneventful. It could also be a measurable feature such as acidity or color.
The point is, becoming intimately familiar with a wine is important. It is not until you have a solid understanding of what makes the wine work well on the palate that you can go on to select secondary wines to blend with it that have complimenting characters.
By “complimenting” what is meant is the secondary wine should be one that not only enhances the anchoring features of a primary wine, but also dilutes the weaknesses of that wine. In other words the two wines must fit together, filling in each others voids as well as building on each others strengths. Blending that falls short of this goal is usually a futile event that just ends up trading one mediocre wine for another at best.
Without question there is significant talent in the ability to identify a primary wine stock’s distinctive qualities, but there is even more talent in the ability to recognize other wines that have fitting characteristics that can augment that wine. So often blending can unsuspectingly reduce the wanted features of a wine to a grey, uneventful nothing.
After having said all this, don’t feel that blending is only for the wine making professional or the few home wine making amateurs that aspire to become professionals. Blending is a valuable tool that any winemaker should learn to utilize.
Start by observing the wines you drink whether commercial or homemade. Try to dissect them in your mind. Mentally peel away each of the wine’s characteristic layers one by one. If you have time, run to the cellar and see if you can’t pick out another bottle of wine that you feel would blend with it well.
Start with this kind of wine making play and in time you will come to find that blending is not as nebulous as you might have thought. Not only is this kind of play helpful in becoming a proficient blender but also a fun and interesting way to appreciate wine.
Ed Kraus is a 3rd generation home brewer/winemaker and has been an owner of E. C. Kraus since 1999. He has been helping individuals make better wine and beer for over 25 years.