Red wines from the Southern Rhône are often a blend of grape varieties. State the stylistic and practical reasons why a winemaker in this region might choose to blend.
[Answer(s) based on WSET Level 3 material]
It’s almost impossible to answer this question without first looking at the environment of, and the grapes grown in, the Southern Rhône region, as this will certainly address the practical portion of this question.
Compared to the Northern Rhône (which we’ll get to in a later post), the lay of the land is actually quite flat. This means two things: 1) vineyards receive more direct sun exposure, as there are no hills to act as shade and 2) for that same reason, the vineyards are more exposed to the mistral wind that blows through the length of the Rhône region, both North and South, but gains the most speed here in the South. (And for that reason, many grapegrowers plant windbreaks to add a barrier.) This affects how grapevines are trained. For example, Grenache, the most widely planted red wine grape, is often bush-trained low to the ground to protect it from the winds as well as to allow it to absorb the heat from the soils. Syrah, on the other hand, is more fragile, so succeeds better when attached to a supportive trellising system.
The climate in the Southern Rhône is Mediterannean, with mild winters and warm dry summers. Although, note that though the winters are technically mild, the mistral makes the temperature feel colder. Another worry is drought during those dry summer months. I’d also like to point out here that, while the bush-training shields Grenache from the mistral, it’s also affective in shielding grapes from too much sun exposure, as Grenache is a vigorous grape variety that can potentially over-yield, producing lower quality fruit, or over-ripen, producing flavors that are overtly jammy. But it is a heat-loving grape, which is why it is so successful in the warm, dry Southern Rhône region.
When talking about the growing environment, we have to discuss the soil. Many of the primary grape-growing sites are filled with large stones, or galets. This is what many think of when they think of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. These absorb the heat of the sun, help warm the vines (particularly important during wind storms), and help aid ripening. FUN FACT: I recently listened to a podcast all about the Southern Rhône, and the winemaker being interviewed said that those galets, during the warmest summer months, can reach 55°C (131°F), so if you touch one, you’ll burn your hand. Hot Rocks.
Let’s take a look at some of the other grape varieties. The Southern Rhône is home to a plethora of them, I’m going to touch on a few of the most important red grapes here, since the above question is specifically asking about red blends.
Mourvédre is at its northern-most limit of where it can ripen fully here in the Southern Rhône, so thrives in the warmest sites of the region.
Syrah is also widely planted, but it tends to struggle in the hottest sites.
Cinsault is a variety that, though delicate in its flavors, is quite drought-tolerant, thus suitable to the terroir and climate of the Southern Rhône.
Now that we have the basics of the Southern Rhône regions covered, we can better answer the question above.
As you can see from the notes above, the warm, dry climate and the mistral create some vineyard challenges. Thus, grapegrowers need to plant their vines in the portion of the region where the grapes will actually thrive. The warmest sites will be most suitable to Mourvédre; in the windier sites it will be safer to plant bush-trained Grenache; the less windy sites would be better suited to Syrah. The other thing to note are those vineyard risks, the mistral and drought, means that there will be a stronger occurrence of vintage variation. Meaning, year-to-year, there is less of a guarantee that all grapes will ripen fully, evenly, or adequately. Thus, creating blends can be a bit of a “safety net” for producers, ensuring that, regardless of whether one variety does as well as the previous years, they will always be able to “put something together,” via blending.
I actually really like this quote from the WSET book, “All winemakers must find a way of managing potentially high tannins and high alcohol levels in order to produce a balanced wine.” Indeed, with this warm, Mediterranean climate, thick tannins and high sugar levels will be prevalent—thus tannic, high-alcohol wines. But with a variety of grapes that ripen at different paces, one can control those affects by…blending.
I feel like “stylistically” can also answer the practicality question, as each variety will offer something different to the overall blend. And, depending on what the winemaker is looking to produce, he/she will include certain percentages of certain varieties, but also, depending on how the grapes ripened that year, he/she may need to blend in more or less of certain varieties.
The most common blend that we probably all know from the Southern Rhône is good old GSM (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvédre). The Grenache will add the red fruit and red spice notes; the Syrah adds color and tannin; the Mourvédre adds a little bit of everything: color, tannin, black fruits, as well as a kind of gamey (I would argue earthy) umami-ness. [Cinsault, when used will also add some red fruit flavors and tannin, but it’s noted that it’s best role is alongside Grenache in the production of fresh, fruity rosés.)
Ok, I think I answered that question pretty accurately. What do you say? Anything you want to add? What’s your favorite Southern Rhône blend? I do have a review coming up but—hold the phone!—it’s actually a white! So, you will have to wait. 🙂
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