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Lise Ciolino
November 15, 2008 | Blending, Cabernet Sauvignon, Nobile, Syrah, Winemaking | Lise Ciolino

Cabernet - Syrah Blends

The 2005 Montemaggiore Nobile, a blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Syrah, really demonstrates how wonderful these varietals fit together. For those of you who aren't familiar with the blend, we thought we'd explain why we do it, how we do it, and why others don't!

We blend our Cabernet with Syrah simply because it tastes better than just the Cabernet alone. In fact most wines in the world are blends of more than one varietal (e.g., Bordeaux, Chianti, Rhone) for just that reason. By blending varietals with complementary strengths, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Cabernet's strengths include its structure, ageability, and depth—but it can be very austere and difficult to drink when young. Syrahs strengths are in its fruit and spice aromas, along with its soft tannins and breadth of flavors—making it wonderful to drink when young. Combining Cabernet's and Syrah's strengths yields a wine that's got a lot of appealing fruit, easy to drink young or aged, and a lot of complexity to keep you sipping!

Experimenting and deciding upon the exact blend of varietals is an iterative process. In the laboratory with small quantities, Lise tries to balance the fruit and voluptuousness of the Syrah with the structure and depth of the Cabernet. Knowing that in the past our Cabernet percentages have varied between 60% and 80% gives her a likely range to start with. But taste is not additive—by adding 2% more Syrah to change a blend, for example, the wine doesn't just have 2% more "fruit". The flavor interactions are so complex that it's virtually impossible to predict the nuances of making a particular change. Then we must taste and re-taste our presumed blend over several weeks to feel confident in our decision. After Lise actually blends the wine from the barrels, we may tweak the blend further all the way up to bottling. What this means is that there's just a lot of tasting to do!

Although we love the Cabernet-Syrah blend, the American wine market is not very friendly to blends, which probably explains why there are so few. Sadly, even a superior product can be hurt by inferior market conditions. Most California wine is marketed by varietal (e.g., Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon), and although blends are gaining in popularity, this requires educating wine consumers. What does "Claret", "Meritage", or "Nobile" mean? Restaurant wine lists, wine competitions, and wine shop shelves are typically organized by varietal. Thus where would one find a Montemaggiore Nobile? With the Cabernets, Red Blends, or simply Other Reds? Blends just don't fit the marketing mold (which may just be another reason why we like it).

Putting the marketing challenges aside, anyone who tastes a Montemaggiore Nobile will immediately understand why we make it!


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