My Round: Raise a glass to blending grape varieties

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Indy Lifestyle Online

I was standing at the counter of the Monmouth Coffee House, my favourite bean-dispenser and second-favourite food shop in the whole world, trying to decide what to buy. None of my tried-and-tested estates were on display, so I sought guidance from the very well-informed young guy behind the counter. He gave me various options, and I settled on a Brazilian (Fazenda Lagoa) and a Cuban (Crystal Mountain Caracolillo) - both very good recommendations.

But before I departed, he said to me, almost furtively, "You know, you could blend those two." This was in response to some discussions we'd had about the choice of roasts; I am generally a medium-roast kind of dude, but the Brazilian, he'd said, was shown to best advantage in a high roast. A blend, he said, might be my path to bean perfection. Yet he said it almost apologetically, as the Monmouth creed (to which I subscribe whole-heartedly) is to drink single-estate coffees on their own.

However, why should that creed be unalterable, even for dedicated coffee-hounds? There's no question that appreciation of the sacred bean demands attention to what, in wine, is called terroir: a particular bean grown in particular conditions on a particular plot of land. But does that mean we must always follow the creed? No. Not if, by blending, we can get something that suits our particular set of taste buds. Yet some people would regard it as sacrilege.

The wine world has its own debates about blending, and they are much more complicated. No one would argue seriously that a £75 domaine-bottled Burgundy should be blended with wine from another property, but I've tasted a couple of pricey bottles - more from Bordeaux than from Burgundy - that might well have benefited from the addition of something else. And in the old days, when expedience counted for more than EU regulations, it was common practice to beef up pallid Burgundy with a bit of something weightier (from the Rhône, or the Languedoc).

Again, no one would seriously propose a return to that practice. But there's another type of blending that is taking a gentle hold on wine-making, and that's the blending of grape varieties. A whole generation of wine-drinkers has grown up thinking that Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are all names of wines. They're not; they're the names of grape varieties. And while they may have made wine more comprehensible for novices drinkers, they do their customers few favours if they fool them into thinking that varietal wines are everything.

Fortunately, there's a little less reliance on varietal wines nowadays, especially in the new world, where the practice was first popularised. Winemakers have discovered that you can take decent fruit from two or more varieties and, by blending, turn them into more than the sum of their parts. The three wines on the right are all examples of the trend, though the first is of a higher order altogether - and hardly a novel blend, but an Australian take on a classic Bordeaux that's been around since the dawn of time. The other two are imaginative pairings, and have the power to give not just immense pleasure, but a welcome bit of novelty for varietally jaded palates.

I'd like to see more of this blend- for-success approach. It is highly successful in various new world areas, especially among Australian producers such as Peter Lehmann (their ever-reliable Clancy's blend) and Nepenthe (Tryst, red and versions). There is also a lot of very clever blending going on in Chile, especially in whites, and a certain amount in South Africa. It isn't rocket science; it's just pragmatism in action. And if it yields more interesting and complex wines, will varietally brainwashed consumers care much?

Of course, my advocacy of blending only goes so far. Did I mix those two coffee estates, as my friend suggested? No. I wimped out. Maybe next time. s

Three blends

Suckfizzle Sauvignon/ Semillon 2003 (£15.99, Alliance Wines, tel: 01505 506 060) Glorious Bordeaux-style blend.

Spier Vintage Select Sauvignon/Chardonnay/ Viognier 2004 (£7.49, Morrisons) A remarkable combination from this seriously good producer.

Mountain Duck Chenin Blanc Chardonnay 2004 (£7.99, Threshers) A blinder from Oz, brimming over with tropical fruits.