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Mix it up: Blended wines can be superb ( WINE & BEER )

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White wine glasses with bottles in background, close-up

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In a barber shop quartet, a tenor sings the melody, a countertenor sings above and a baritone and bass sing below.

Wine blends create harmonies in similar ways.

Wines blended from two or more grapes are among the world’s best, most expensive. They range from traditional ones with centuries-old formulas to freewheeling blends that mix almost anything, occasionally even white grapes among the reds.

At the traditional end, France’s red Bordeaux, arguably the standard for the world’s red wines, are blends of at least two of the following five grapes: cabernet sauvignon for structure and rich berry flavors; merlot for smoothness; cabernet franc for aromas of flowers and earth; malbec for inky violet hue and petit verdot for spice.

In old days, blending was done in hopes the strengths of one grape would cover the shortcomings of another. If the late-ripening cabernet sauvignon didn’t get fully mature, merlot would smooth it out with sweet fruit and soft tannins. And so on.

These scientific days, growers can make excellent unblended wines most years from most grape varieties. California’s Echelon Vineyards 2010 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is 100 percent from that grape.

Still, winemakers often blend in other grapes simply to make the best wine they can. Or, one suspects, just for fun.

And since Bordeaux’s red wines, with their five-grape recipe, are the world standard, a group of American vintners in 1988 formed the Meritage Association to make wines here to that formula.

Today, the Meritagealliance.com website lists 283 winery members in 22 states from California to Idaho to West Virginia. Its goal is to create “an American expression of excellence for wines blended in the Bordeaux tradition.”

Some of America’s top wines are Meritages. California’s Rodney Strong Vineyards 2009 “Symmetry” Red Meritage from Alexander Valley is made up of cabernet sauvignon, malbec, merlot and cabernet franc.

Continuum Estate’s 2009 red wine, made by some of Robert Mondavi’s children, has cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, petit verdot and merlot.

Outside the Bordeaux/Meritage formula, American winemakers are experimenting with ever-more audacious blends including dozens of grapes.

There are rules. In California a wine must have 75 percent of one grape variety to be called by that name. Still, it leaves some room for tinkering.

For example, Murphy Goode’s 2010 Pinot Noir is 86 percent pinot noir, with 14 percent syrah added for structure.

Mettler Family Vineyards’ 2009 Estate Grown “Old Vine” Zinfandel is made up of 78 percent American-style zinfandel plus French Rhone Valley-style petite sirah and French Bordeaux-style cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc.

Gallo’s 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon blends cabernet sauvignon with petit verdot a Bordeaux-style grape, plus Rhone-style petite sirah.

Bridlewood Estate’s 2010 California Central Coast blend combines syrah, merlot, tempranillo (the Spanish Rioja grape) and cabernet sauvignon.

Some wineries take this to great lengths. Kendall-Jackson’s “Vintner’s Reserve” Syrah includes syrah, zinfandel and petite sirah - all red grapes - plus chardonnay and viognier - two white grapes, for sweet softness and fruit. (The two whites make up only 1 percent of the blend, but I’ve seen from personal experience that one percent can make a surprising flavor difference).

One small problem: Many wine fans, even restaurant wine stewards, don’t understand the Meritage concept. So there’s a lot of mislabeling in wine lists. Some pragmatic list-writers throw up their hands and create a single wine list category called “Meritages and Red Blends.” To see what you’re getting, you might have to ask to see the bottle’s back label.

Finally, if you want to be pedantic, Meritage isn’t pronounced meri-TAAGHE in the French way. It’s a combination of “merit” and “heritage,” and it rhymes with the latter.

That should boost your street cred with your snooty wine friends.

Highly recommended

e_SBlt 2009 Rodney Strong “Symmetry” Meritage Red Wine, Alexander Valley (79 percent cabernet sauvignon, 14 percent malbec, 6 percent merlot, 1 percent cabernet franc): sweet blackberry and spice aromas, flavors of blackberries and bittersweet chocolate, very smooth, opulent; $55.

• 2009 Mettler Family Vineyards Estate Grown “Old Vine” Zinfandel, Lodi (78 percent zinfandel, 12 percent petite sirah, 8 percent cabernet sauvignon, 2 percent cabernet franc): rich aromas and flavors of red plums, sweet chocolate and spice; $20.

e_SBlt 2009 Continuum Estate, Napa Valley, (77 percent cabernet sauvignon, 12 percent cabernet franc, 7 percent petit verdot, 4 percent merlot): powerful and lush, with intense flavors of black cherries, cloves and chocolate, smooth, long finish; $165.

Recommended

e_SBlt 2010 Echelon Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley (100 percent cabernet sauvignon): aroma and flavor of black cherries and black coffee, smooth and rich; $18.

e_SBlt 2010 Kendall-Jackson “Vintner’s Reserve” Syrah, Santa Barbara County (98.6 percent syrah, 0.6 percent chardonnay, 0.4 percent viognier, 0.3 percent zinfandel, 0.1 percent petite sirah): aromas and flavors of black cherries, mocha and spice, smooth; $17.

e_SBlt 2010 Murphy-Goode Pinot Noir, California (86 percent pinot noir, 14 percent syrah): aromas and flavors of black plums and cloves, soft tannins; $15.

e_SBlt 2010 Round Pond Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley (100 percent cabernet sauvignon): floral aromas, flavors of black cherries and mocha, long and smooth; $30.

e_SBlt 2008 Gallo “Signature Series” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley (86 percent cabernet sauvignon, 8 percent petit verdot, 6 percent petite sirah): hint of oak, aromas and flavors of black cherries and dark chocolate; $40.

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