Dunne on Wine

The rising stature of blended wines

The label for Markus Joey 2015 Lodi Insieme
The label for Markus Joey 2015 Lodi Insieme

Suprematist wouldn’t be a bad name for a variety of wine grape, but it’s already been taken by an art movement whose practitioners express their passion through basic geometric shapes like rectangles and circles.

Think of the work of Russian artist Kazimir Malevich, most closely identified with paintings that look like nothing more than black, white or red squares.

To me they are akin to simple and flat wines – worth a glance en route to galleries hung with more tense, complex, animated and provocative works. A black, white or red square may have its historical significance, but it’s no “Mona Lisa,” at least to this beholder.

I’d rather hang out in an exhibit hall with some of Malevich’s more traditional impressionistic canvases, like “Spring Garden in Blossom” or “Peasant Women in a Church.” They’ve got drama, sensitivity and movement. You want to linger with them for a while, letting them raise questions and evoke emotions.

Wine-wise, we’re living in an age of suprematism – too often of a singular dimension, emphasizing bold fruit with little or no complexity and nuance, shown off from within a thick and heavy oak frame. They’re simple and direct, stable from first sip to last, but failing to unfold with a shifting complexity that brings you back for a more attentive look. They are the varietal wines that drive the American market and more often than not taste as if they came out of the same tank, regardless of vintage, vintner or vineyard.

To be sure, there are some cabernet sauvignons, zinfandels, rieslings and other varietal wines that do deliver complexity, with a captivating and shifting release, but increasingly they look to be exceptions to a model that stresses uniformity and stodginess.

On the other hand, one of the more encouraging developments on the American wine scene is the emergence of blended wines that carry a proprietary rather than varietal name. They must be selling, because more are appearing on store shelves. This could be seen as a reflection of an adventurous American palate, perhaps one fatigued by so many circles and squares that look just like any other circle or square. And don’t ignore the firm grip that European wines continue to hold on the American palate; in Europe, many wines traditionally have been blends, often eschewing varietal designations in favor of regional names.

At any rate, here are some of the more impressive blended wines I’ve tasted so far this year:

Virginia Dare Winery 2013 Paso Robles Two Arrowheads ($23): Virginia Dare is a brand of Francis Ford Coppola, and it has a backstory so long and layered it could be published in his Zoetrope quarterly. Come to think of it, Two Arrowheads also is long and layered. It’s a bright, floral and richly fruity blend of 71 percent viognier and 29 percent roussanne, partially fermented and aged in oak barrels, but so neutral that the wood only rounds out the feel of the wine and doesn’t interfere at all with its bright and elegant fruit.

Markus Joey 2015 Lodi Insieme ($19): A truly original American wine. The appellation says “Lodi” because that’s where 95 percent of the torrontes in the blend was grown. But the 5 percent traminette that helps bolster the wine’s fragrance and spice was grown in Lewisville, N.C. The result is a wine that has more going for it than novelty, which is to say it is exceptionally floral, ticklish in its spice and unusually rich and layered for a white wine. It carries .85 percent residual sugar but doesn’t taste sweet thanks to its energizing acidity. The wine is available only at Borra Vineyards in Lodi.

Chronic Cellars 2015 Central Coast Eunice X ($15): Chronic Cellars has such juvenile label art that it’s difficult to take their wines seriously, but in tasting them you discover that the cellar workers must be uncommonly gifted, mature and sensitive, turning out one blended wine after another that are surprising for their spunk and grace. The Eunice X is a rich, flamboyant and slightly sweet blend of 75 percent chardonnay, 14 percent viognier, 8 percent roussanne and 3 percent marsanne.

Ferraton Père & Fils 2015 Côtes-du-Rhône Samorens Blanc ($14): From the northern reaches of France’s Rhône Valley, the green grapes grenache blanc and clairette are blended without any oak aging to yield a bright, medium-bodied and slightly viscous wine of uncommon complexity for such an inexpensive white. The layered fruitiness of the wine ranges from floral notes of honeysuckle, apricot and peach to the snap and spice of mountain-grown apples.

M. Chapoutier Domaine de Bila-Haut 2014 Côtes de Roussillon Villages ($14): Michel Chapoutier is most closely identified with France’s Rhône Valley – he also owns Ferraton Père & Fils mentioned above - but for this lean and light-hearted blend of the traditional Rhône Valley varieties grenache, syrah and carignane he reached south, into the Languedoc, customarily not associated with wines of this much vigor and spice. It’s a lean and youthful wine, supple in feel, with a dash of black pepper to spice up its lilting red fruit; overall, an ideal wine for fall dishes.

Dashe Cellars 2013 Alexander Valley The Comet ($35): With the aptly named Comet, Michael Dashe has assembled a wine that combines to a rare degree the attributes of muscle and dexterity. It’s a big-boned blend of 51 percent zinfandel, 39 percent petite sirah and 10 percent carignane, but note the Alexander Valley appellation, a Sonoma County enclave celebrated for its pliable tannins, resulting in a wine while hefty and age-worthy also can be relished now when paired with filet mignon, T-bone and the like.

Shed Horn Cellars 2014 Lake County Non Typical Red Wine ($25): The name is playful but appropriate, given that this rich and oaky wine is a multifaceted mix of 46 percent zinfandel, 20 percent petite sirah, 17 percent syrah, 14 percent barbera and 3 percent petit verdot. It may sound as if the winemaker threw everything left over from the harvest into a single tank and hoped for the best, but more deliberation must have gone into the wine’s conception. It was, after all, a serious finalist for best red at this summer’s California State Fair, where it finished third in a field of 11 candidates.

Iron Hub Winery & Vineyards 2013 Shenandoah Valley Resolute ($26): I raved about this wine in a column about Iron Hub a few weeks ago, but subsequently opened another bottle and found it even more alluring for its vibrancy and versatility. A blend of aglianico, sangiovese, grenache and syrah, it sings mostly of sunny and juicy cherries, but it also carries threads of lavender and damp herbs.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.

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