Learn how winemakers create complex and balanced blends by using different kinds of grapes.


You’re perusing the wine aisle. As you scan the shelves you notice a red wine from California that’s labeled simply as a “Red Blend.” It’s likely that some questions pop into your head like: what’s this and why?

You can get a glimpse of a winemaker’s thought process by looking at a wine’s composition. This is true in both the red blend mentioned above and the more subtle process of improving varietal wines. Let’s pin down some definitions and look at different examples.


What is a wine blend?

A blend is a wine made from more than one kind of grape. Winemakers blend different grapes for complexity or balance. This process can upgrade the finished products in nearly every way. Vintners can enhance the aroma, color, mouthfeel, body and finish by adding other grapes.

Blending is done to make an all-together new wine or to improve one aspect. If a wine is producing a weak aroma, a winemaker can add a grape with a potent nose. They can also add other grapes to make a blend more well-rounded. This comes into play if a wine is too strong in one area like acidity or tannins.


What’s an example of a wine blend?

The Moon Tree 2017 Red Blend has a base of 40% Zinfandel. It is rounded out with 27% Syrah, 19% Petite Sirah, 6% Mourvedre, 4% Merlot, 3% Cab Franc and 1% Grenache. The resulting wine is complex with great depth and a smooth finish.


What is varietal wine?

A varietal wine is made from one kind of grape. These are the wines that are practically their own brand name like chardonnay or pinot noir. There are plenty of wines that are 100% of a grape like Moon Tree Sauvignon Blanc.

Labeling laws add a bit of nuance to what’s actually in a varietal wine. Depending on the region and style of wine, there are different standards. In the U.S., a wine must contain at least 75% of the advertised varietal. In much of Europe, the standard is 80% or more.


Is there blending in varietal wines?

Within this category there are two approaches, but neither are as dramatic as the blends explained above.

If 100% of a wine is made up of one specific grape, that doesn’t mean all the grapes are from the same place. The grapes can come from different plots or wineries to be mixed together. Vintners can also use different vintages to coax out preferred attributes.

As long as a wine meets the standard, it can include other grapes without giving up its varietal distinction. Adding other varieties accomplishes the same goals it does in a classic blend: complexity and balance.

Moon Tree Chardonnay is 80% of the namesake grape and 20% Roussanne. The result has a lovely balance of green apple, pear, melon and citrus notes, subtly underwritten by lightly toasted coconut, oak and caramel.


How do they blend wine?

The specifics of how and when a winemaker blends their wine is the secret sauce of the industry. Some people will blend young wine, while others will wait months before unifying different wines. These individual decisions are what separate the winemaker from the wine drinker. Winemakers start by tasting the wines they have and evaluating each barrel. With a list of characteristics, they can start to build their blend.

The winemaking process is one of educated guesses, trial and error and fine tuning. A winemaker starts with a base blend using a grape like a Cabernet. They add different varietals that pile on layers of flavor and round out the experience.

Darcie Kent Vineyards Firepit Red is a blend with a Cabernet base. They selected Cabernet over Merlot because of the stronger tannins. The aroma is brimming with red fruits like cherry, raspberry and plum. There are also notes of mint and cedar along with the smokiness you’d expect from a wine called “Firepit Red.” The flavor swirls with red fruit, acai berry, black peppercorns and menthol.

When creating a new blend, winemakers use their knowledge, experience and tasting skills to develop a plan. Then, they’ll combine the wines in a small sample and see if their guess was right. Sometimes it is.

It’s just as likely that the experiment will fail. Sometimes, wines that theoretically should make each other better just don’t jive. Bad and mediocre samples become data points as the vintner reimagines the blend. This mad scientist approach can be crazy-making and rewarding all at once.

Everyone’s process is different, but generally, a winemaker will make a few options before deciding on the final blend. After reevaluating what they have, wineries can dial in the best option. At this point they’ll mix barrels in a blending tank. Often the wine will be returned to barrels to age before bottling.


What’s up with barrel aging?

If you’ve been to a winery, you’ve seen the rows of wine barrels, neatly lined up in a cool, dark room. There are a lot of different factors that can impact a wine when it comes to barrels.

Is the barrel new or old? Is it oak or stainless steel? Is your wood barrel toasted? Was the barrel used for something else like whiskey?

Aging, like the process of selecting the wines in a blend, can make massive changes to the wine. It can also take a varietal wine and turn it into something new.

Moon Tree 2018 Bourbon Barrel Cabernet Sauvignon is made with 78% Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, making it a varietal Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s enhanced with two other grapes — 12% Syrah and 10% Petite Sirah.

What takes this wine to another level is that it was aged in bourbon barrels. This emparts hints of oak and a rich bourbon finish, alongside the dark fruit flavors of a Cabernet.

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