Just like with people, blends are inevitably more interesting. But this comment, while true, doesn’t take into account the fact that 99.999% of all wines are blends. Even if it is a single variety, and if it is any good, it will have benefited from the blending of different vineyards, each with their own characters. And even in the rare case of true single vineyards, there will be the inevitable blending of different ferments and different tanks or barrels.
How these elements are introduced, how they go on a first date, how they ‘click’ and eventually fall in love is what we somewhat dismissively call ‘blending’ – the act of which is the most important winemaking skill after knowing when to pick.
Of course when blending different varieties, one just has so much more noise with which to pump up the party. Why this works particularly well in South Africa is a bit of a mystery. There’s no reason why other origins shouldn’t also be able to take advantage of this obvious x factor. But somehow South African blends in general, and white blends in particular, stand out from the crowd.
There are five main reasons we winemakers blend; for consistency, to hide weak tanks in a massive blend, to enhance complexity, to achieve balance, and finally, just because we love to blend. Sometimes you have one of these outcomes in mind when you start, but mostly you have two or three. It really depends if you are blending on a huge commercial scale or to make a small batch, top end wine.
Importantly, you are blending in three dimensions. Each variety and each tank of each variety will do something to one or more elements of the final wine. A ripe, dry-land Chenin will add structure and mid-palate weight to the wine, but may not have enticing aromatics, while a high altitude, cool climate Viognier will have the aromatics, but also a nagging bitterness at the finish. So you balance this with a warm climate Chardonnay from alluvial soil – but not too much, or you lose the structure and tenacity of the Chenin… etc.., etc… There’s an enormous amount of trial and error and the more varieties you throw into the cauldron, the more Rubik’s cube you make it.
Perhaps South Africans winemakers are more used to the intriguing complexities of blending because of our radically differentiated soils. We’ve had to embrace this diversity and we’ve just been doing it for so much longer. So putting this 3D wine puzzle together comes easier to us. It’s like Malcolm Gladwell’s 10 000 hour rule in his book, Outliers. When you’ve been focused on blending to this byzantine degree from such an early stage in your career, it becomes second nature.
At Flagstone we have always blended radically different vineyard sights to build a complex, balanced and ‘whole’ wine. We call it ‘total wine’. Over the last fifteen years, we’ve done such exciting experiments, especially around the way certain soils ‘click’ with each other.
So the same variety planted on different soils with different aspects and at different altitudes will produce fundamentally different wines. It’s putting those diverse wines together in just the right ratio that is so much fun, and ultimately so satisfying. Add in an extra layer of intrigue by utilising different varieties and different oak barrels and the initial puzzle may be harder to crack, but the solution will be so much more rewarding. When all the components fit together, you don’t see any edges – there is solidity, poise, a sort of live electricity and real presence – it’s like there is no ‘wasted’ space in the wine. That’s when I get excited. It’s such a cool feeling when it happens.
What I’ve learnt from blending wines at both the huge volume “lifestyle” price range and the more premium smaller scale of Flagstone is that both require you to embrace the natural diversity our soils, albeit from different angles. When you manage to get this under some sort of control, you can capture a wonderment of complexity that is unusual in other countries. It’s naturally there beneath our feet, and the skill we must have is in balancing it all out.
With our wines from The Drift Farm we have gone up another level in terms of exclusivity and focus. We only make wines from grapes grown on this one small farm. But it is a farm knitted into the side of a wild, windy mountain where three very different soil types mesh together. Layer on top of this our altitude and a myriad of aspects, and you have a fascinating combination of “ingredients” to work with.
We have tried to match varieties to soil types, hence the odd-shaped blocks dotted around the slopes, in an apparently random fashion.
And while our focus is on single vineyard wines, I couldn’t stop myself making a blend of
Love, light and a glass of delicious, wholesome wine,