An art as much as science, blending wine requires time and patience, especially when the portion of wine in a blend appears too small to make a real impact. Although winemakers sometimes blend for practical purposes—say, to stretch the volume of a wine or to use leftover grapes—often the intention is to create a more complex expression that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
As it turns out, even tiny ratios can make a noticeable splash—sometimes in surprising ways. Adding 1% Cabernet Franc, for instance, may give that floral burst you’ve been looking for, while a touch too much Viognier may overwhelm other aromas. Here’s how some vintners use small amounts of wine to great effect in a final blend.
1% Barbera for Length
To counter the softness, pink floral notes and tart fruit in her lighter-style 2019 Sangiovese, Meredith Sarboraria, winemaker for Rodrigue Molyneaux Winery in California’s Livermore Valley, used 2% Cabernet Sauvignon to add dark complexity and structure. But it’s the Barbera that makes sure the finish doesn’t stop short.
“Barbera added a touch of length to the finish,” says the winemaker. “But being a naturally acidic variety, adding more than 1% made it tart and astringent.” She adds that “too much can dilute the varietal characteristics or make it unrecognizable or disjointed.”
1% Viognier for Fruitiness
A small amount of Viognier is often used in Côte-Rôtie red blends from the Northern Rhône to boost and stabilize Syrah’s inky color and tone down the tannins. In white wines, the same amount lends the grape’s heady floral and stone fruit characteristics, helping the final blend’s bouquet to blossom.
In the already perfumed 2018 Chêne Bleu Aliot from Provence, 1% of Viognier lends appealing notes of apricot, along with a touch of brioche and toasted almond. Inspiration for it struck a few years ago, when the team marveled at how switching out the Viognier for Roussanne in a flagship red completely changed the style. Freeing up the Viognier allowed them to experiment with it in Aliot. Because most of the Provence-based winery’s expressions are crafted for long aging, calibrating balance and harmony is paramount.
“With time, anything aromatically lopsided in the blend will be exacerbated, which could cause the wine to fall apart quite suddenly,” explains proprietor Nicole Rolet. “That’s why we spend so much time fiddling with smaller percentages that act as supporting cast.”
To control its aromatics, Viognier was blended in once the co-fermented base wine was complete. “We find Viognier to be an aromatically ‘alpha’ grape that can quickly overwhelm the other aromas,” Rolet says. “But a smidge will add some intrigue, complexity and nuance to a blend.”
1.5% Mazuelo (Carignan) for Spice
Sometimes a small amount of wine makes it into a blend because of happenstance. That was the case in the 2016 Bodegas Montecillo Crianza from Rioja. Winemaker García Rupérez always ferments each variety individually; however, that year, one of the Mazuelo, better known as Carignan, vineyards ripened too early. Since the rest of the harvest wasn’t quite ready, he ended up adding it to one tank of Tempranillo and then keeping it separate from the other wines during malolactic fermentation and barrel aging.
At the final tasting, the team was surprised to learn that the not only noticeably changed the wine, but improved it. As a result, they decided to add 1.5% Carignan into the final blend, which also contains 15% Garnacha.
“The result is a more aromatic wine, with a wonderfully spicy nose and a subtle pyrazine profile that was not present in other lots of pure Tempranillo,” Rupérez says.
1% Malbec for Juiciness
At J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines, winemaker Brenden Wood develops the Hilltop Cabernet Sauvignon blends in several rounds, starting with a base of 100% Cab that’s concentrated but not overly tannic. Round two introduces several grapes vying to be minor players.
“We usually add 5% or 10% Malbec in a trial blend as a rough starting point, but almost always need to dial it back,” he explains. “We like the softness that Malbec brings to the palate, but the floral and red fruit aromas can be very overt.”
After that percentage has been perfected, the team moves on to Petit Verdot. Trial and error over the years have resulted in a go-to formula of two to three parts Petit Verdot for every part of Malbec. Cabernet Franc and Merlot are also on the table if needed.
The assembled blend is barrel-rested and racked once or twice, then revisited. Though Cabernet Franc may be added for freshness or Malbec for juiciness, adjustments this late in the game are always very small. For the 2021 vintage, they added 3% Petit Verdot and, critically, 1% Malbec, which the team refers to as “the friendly blender.”
“We value Malbec for its plush mouthfeel, low tannin concentration, red fruit and hibiscus aromatics,” Wood says. “But a little goes a long way—too much Malbec and the wine will taste like a fun red blend instead of Cabernet Sauvignon.”
1% Cabernet Franc for Floral Quality
For each vintage of Bella Union Winery’s Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, which also blends in other classic Bordeaux red grapes, winemaker Brooke Bobyak-Price carefully considers including other varieties “to uplift our wine and to best showcase our house style.”
In 2019, she turned to a tiny amount of Cabernet Franc, handpicked from a small parcel in their estate vineyard in Rutherford, to add a whiff of fresh-picked flowers. The blending process starts after the grapes are picked and brought to the winery.
“We assess each of the lots as the wines are fermented, and I begin thinking about how each component is going to fit together,” Bobyak-Price says. Varieties and vineyards are both possible variables, since the same grape planted in two different sites can show distinctive characteristics that offer unique attributes to a wine. “Location of vineyard, microclimate and soil type are main contributors to defining distinct varietal characteristics and is also something we consider when crafting our blends.”
Subsequent trials, tastings and fine-tunings can take up to a year before the blend is finalized. That year, she decided on 1% of Cabernet Franc to “naturally impart freshness and highlight its perfumed and lifted floral aromas that round out the Cabernet Sauvignon-based blend.”
The big takeaway? Don’t scoff the next time you see that a blend contains 1% of any given grape varietal. Even a small amount of wine can have an outsized impact when properly deployed.
Last Updated: July 17, 2023