The drinker | blends

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"I'll have a glass of Chardonnay." Or: "we'll have a bottle of the Merlot." If you've ever said anything like this, you've been speaking the language of varietals - grape varieties. The language was barely spoken just 20 years ago. Today, many drinkers are monoglots in Varietalese. And its rise has created a serious misconception: the idea that wine is normally made from a single grape, whose name is all you need to know.

"I'll have a glass of Chardonnay." Or: "we'll have a bottle of the Merlot." If you've ever said anything like this, you've been speaking the language of varietals - grape varieties. The language was barely spoken just 20 years ago. Today, many drinkers are monoglots in Varietalese. And its rise has created a serious misconception: the idea that wine is normally made from a single grape, whose name is all you need to know.

Must try harder. No grape produces the same wine in two neighbouring estates, let alone in places as far flung as the Western Cape and Italy's Alto Adige.

Now, it's true that some of the world's greatest wines are (and always have been) made from a single, un-blended grape. Burgundy's Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are two examples, and so are Hermitage and other reds in the northern Rhÿne (Syrah), and the Barolo and Barbaresco of Piemonte (Nebbiolo). But many more are blends of two or more grapes: most of the wines of Bordeaux, the Châteauneuf-du-Pape of the southern Rhÿne, all Port. But most wines - especially those at lower prices - greatly benefit from blending. Indeed, the only grape I can think of that absolutely never needs blending is Pinot Noir - although that doesn't stop some producers from doing it. And increasingly, producers are turning away from varietal emphasis towards judicious, intelligent blends.

Much of the impetus for this movement comes from New World winemakers, who are rarely tied by legal restrictions on what they can make and how they can make it. In Australia especially, there has been all sorts of imaginative blending, both red and white. Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon/Chardonnay, Cabernet/ Syrah - these are just a few.

This reality is acknowledged in their wine laws, which allow a certain percentage of other grapes even when the wine is labelled as Merlot or whatever. Take the bottle on my desk as I type, the superbly ripe Bonterra Vineyards Merlot 1997 (£9.99, Waitrose), from that excellent organic producer in Mendocino. This one slips in 10 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon and four per cent Syrah, whatever it says on the label.

The same story can be read all over the globe. Take Chile as just one example. Varietally labelled wine there can contain up to 25 per cent of something else, but now they're experimenting with explicit blends following the lead of Valdivieso's wonderfully eccentric Caballo Loco. Montgras makes Quatro 1998, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec and Carignan in varying proportions of tremendous depth and complexity (£5.99, Waitrose and Tesco). Tesco also has Santa Rita Triple C 1997 (£10.99), which has featured here before: Cabernets Franc and Sauvignon with Carmenÿre. Adnams has the best of all, Antyal 1998, made by Alvaro Espinoza (one of South America's best winemakers) from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. Expensive at £14.95, but worth it.

But you don't have to travel to the other side of the earth to find such things. Some of the nicest low-price white gluggers are made in eastern Europe from wacky combinations. In France, Yves Grassa produces a remarkably fresh and lively but complex blend of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. This goes under various guises: at Wine Rack/Bottoms Up it's Cÿte Tariquet 1998, and it costs £6.49.

Varietal labelling has been a fine thing in educating us about wine. And that solitary name makes things easier for us consumers. But just remember that it does not tell the whole story.

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