Wine column no. 59: Balanced blends are their own reward

Oct. 19, 2014: It is a truth universally acknowledged that massive fires always draw a crowd and car accidents are ripe for rubbernecking. High waters attract stunned stares and gunshots force us into an uneasy silence. So what do we do when we find ourselves within earshot of a tornado? Most people will purposely wander outside, just to know what it feels like to be within the realm of danger. 

It’s human nature to want to be a spectator. In some ways, we need to be. We need to see how badly a blaze can topple a roof, just so we can understand the importance of insurance. We need to see how easily our roads can turn into rivers, just so we can concoct a survival strategy. And we need to know how calm, quiet and eerily serene the world can seem right before Mother Nature spins on by, throwing one of her worst tantrums ever.

Wine marketers know this. That’s why they give us red blends with names like Troublemaker Blend 7, or white wines titled The Fragrant Snare. Tornados in a glass, these varietal mixtures merge words with substance, allowing us to get close — but not too close — to something deemed scary, or interesting, or worthwhile. They are controlled provocations, letting us experience the essence or side effects of a word, without forcing us into the grips of the word itself. And done well, that is what a good blend should do.

Here are four blends, one sweet and three dry, that seek to highlight the pros and cons of swirled varietals.

The Fragrant Snare is a blend of 50 percent Chardonnay, 20 percent Muscat, 20 percent Gewurztraminer and 10 percent Viognier. New at Winetree East, this wine references the artwork of John James Audubon, the naturalist who lived in Henderson, Kentucky. He’s most famous for his “Birds of America,” a collection of 435 life-sized prints. Yet Audubon also drew other animals. The label for this blend features a red fox caught in a snare, lured with “fragrances set with great niceties” by hunters of the day, according to Tooth & Nail Winery in California.

For $18.59, The Fragrant Snare is what some might call a complete dessert. Readers who like off-dry wines might enjoy this 13.4 percent alcohol creation which boasts of tropical and passion fruits as well as white peach, orange blossom, honeysuckle and clove. However, I’m not a fan of sweet wines, so these fragrances set with great niceties were too wily for me. I refused to finish my glass.

The Troublemaker Blend 7 is a balanced mixture of 54 percent Syrah, 22 percent Grenache, 13 percent Mourvèdre and 11 percent Zinfandel. At 14.5 percent alcohol, this wine is filled with red fruits and some pepper. “Wine is best made when a winemaker has choices,” Hope Family Wines said on its website. I tend to agree. Among grapes, at least, this Paso Robles, California, company certainly has its pick. You can buy this bottle for under $17 at The Fresh Market.

Then there is the 2012 Eruption, a proprietary red wine blend from Brassfield Estate Winery. This rich, intense, impressive blend of Syrah, Malbec, Mourvèdre and Petite Sirah is from the winery’s Volcano Ridge Vineyard located in Clearlake Oaks, California, north of Napa Valley. This is the best wine I’ve had in some time. At 14.7 percent alcohol, the nose reminds me of blackberries, but the texture has no brambles at all: It’s smooth, gentle, and worth a long sip from your glass. $18.99. Winetree East.

What happens when a blend’s tornado of flavors and textures veers wildly out of control? In the case of the 2009 Las Rocas Calatayud Spanish Red Blend, the experience can turn rough. This mixture of Garnacha, Tempranillo and Syrah is supposed to have jammy aromas, nuances of oak, and a round, smooth finish. But all I got was a desire to never see it again. $11.69. 14.5 percent alcohol. Schnucks.

I’d tell you to beware of the blends that go unchecked or that, worse, turn into something you’d never even imagine. But the truth is it’s hard to stop what you don’t even know is coming your way.

Given the risks, why are blends so appealing? The first reason is that they are an honest way for a winemaker to acknowledge that some of his or her varietals were far from perfect in the first place. The second reason is that blends are innately optimistic. Just as a low-acid, lower-tannin Cabernet Franc can add finesse to a too-bold Cabernet Sauvignon, or an oily, rich Sémillon can temper a crisp, acidic Sauvignon Blanc, varietals can work together to offset and even improve each other. Good blends can form balanced and complex partnerships that keep you coming back for more. And the more people experience good blends, the more likely they are to believe they are possible in the first place.