The ritual of blending and the birth of Cuvee Number One

At its heart, winemaking is a series of rituals. Some wine rituals are mysterious, some commonplace. Blending is one of the most talked about and most mysterious of all rituals. People who enjoy and are curious about wine ask me all the time: “How do you blend wine? How can you detect differences between lots, between clones, between tanks? How do you determine that perfect final blend?” So, here is the true secret to how I do it… I believe that the true blending of any wine always takes place in the vineyard, before we even pick the fruit.

What does it mean to blend wine?

Blending is a common expression winemakers use to talk about the process of selecting vineyard lots, varietals, specific vine selections, oak barrel profiles, etc. No matter how small a final wine bottling is, there is always a fusion of blending that eventually plays an important role in the final taste of the wine.

From France to California – blending lessons learned

In my experience, blending rituals begin with knowing your vineyards, as I learned in France through years of walking the rows and tending the vines. That intimate knowledge of the plants themselves is fundamental to success in making the finest wines in the world. Then, based on the knowledge of the fruit you are working with, blending becomes your “magic wand” to refine, select and confirm your gut feelings. Result: a moment where all your experience, knowledge and expectations become one single, focused lens. Will the result be success or failure?

I remember my harvest experience at Château Haut-Brion in 2003, as I was just starting to learn the art of making wine at the highest level. When harvest arrived, each parcel from the estate vineyard was fermented separately, giving birth to many lots. These became individual components that the winemaking team at the Château would use to create a wine with a perfect expression. As the winemaker began tasting each tank, the process of blending physical lots began. Each varietal carries a particular taste, color and tannin quality that impacts the overall balance. For example, Merlot generally provides a sense of velvety and soft tannins with an intense aromatic profile. As the king of all Bordeaux varietals, Cabernet Sauvignon was used as the backbone of the wine, providing a long-lasting structure during aging.

Later, when working in Burgundy in 2006, the blending experience was completely different than that of Bordeaux. Blending Pinot from one single parcel requires you to become more in tune with each barrel, as if they are a unique sound that will play a subtle but essential role in a symphony. Making a Chambolle-Musigny for example, involves evaluating the quality of each barrel before blending them all into just 100 cases of wine from a certain producer.


California homecoming

With my own Cattleya wines, we are making single vineyard cuvées and the quantities are very limited — fewer than 100 cases. So, blending is a very nerve-racking process for me. Declassifying (rejecting) a single barrel could mean eliminating 25% of the total production. With that said: the need for only working with the best fruit from California as well as the selection of the right barrel for each varietal is fundamental to the quality of Cattleya wines.


To further explain the complexity of the blending process, I’ll share the process I went through to create my first Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, to be released next year in the Fall.

Before all else, the fruit and the vineyard must be the right match for my particular inspiration or goal in crafting a wine. In this case, I was looking for a very special site providing a unique sense of place in one of the sub-regions I enjoy working with the most: Green Valley in the Russian River appellation. Next, the clonal selection must have the characteristics of the variety I had chosen to produce. In this case, there are two clones: 115 and Pommard. Last, but not least, the sites must be owned and farmed by people I enjoy working with: in this case Jim Pratt, who already farms the Chardonnay vineyard for my Cattleya Wines.

Having found the ideal fruit as the root of my vision, the entire process of getting to the wine I have imagined making, starts in the vineyard and ends in the bottle.

This special new (for me) vineyard in Green Valley is called the Lakeview Vineyard. It is owned by the Maverick family and farmed by Jim Pratt. There are several clones of Pinot Noir, and there are specific reasons why I chose to work with Pommard and 115. Each of them has their own DNA and different sensory characteristics. I love Pommard to bring much texture and mouthfeel to a Pinot Noir blend. The 115 provides a seductive aromatic profile, generally intense in floral notes, violet, spices and pure wild raspberries. These flavors offer a soft structure that coats the palate. Again, these are just the expectations I have for the type of clone. It remains the site that introduces the complexity factor, the finesse, and the ageability.

In 2014, each clone was fermented and aged in separate French oak barrels for 11 months of aging in the cellar. And, depending on the age of the barrels, the forest the oak was sourced from, the cooperage and the toast, each individual barrel will reveal its own identity (more so when the barrel is new), adding complexity to the wine and hopefully, each becoming a good component for my final blend.

For cuvee Number One, all four barrels from each clone were selected to go into the final blend. Tasting through them brings lots of excitement as the wines are showing a very generous texture, soft and full of flavors, and much more approachable early on than their counterpart 2013 vintage.

From Sonoma County, CA. Bibiana González Rave
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