I’ve often wondered how a winemaker decides on the blend of grapes to use. The grapes are different each year, so there is no specific formula to follow.
To find out, I spend an afternoon in Hong Kong with winemaker Anne-Charlotte Mélia-Bachas, the owner and winemaker of Château de la Font du Loup, an organically farmed estate in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, in France’s Rhône Valley. Font du Loup translates as “fountain of the wolf”, and comes from ancient tales of wolves drinking from springs in the vineyards, which have been in Mélia-Bachas’ family since 1942. The estate has just under 20 hectares under vine, but did not start making its own wines until 1979.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape was the first, and most famous, commune in the Rhône Valley to achieve Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) status. The top curve of every bottle bears a crest shaped like the papal crown, a nod to the area’s history: Châteauneuf-du-Pape translates as “pope’s new castle”, an appellation that dates to the 1300s when Pope Clement V moved the papacy from Rome to Avignon.
Eighteen grape varieties are allowed in a blend of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, up from 10 when the AOC was introduced in the 1930s. The most widely planted grapes are grenache, syrah and mourvèdre, which are used in the wines of Chateau de la Font de Loup.
During our visit, Mélia-Bachas gives a few of us the opportunity to mix our own blends.
“Blending is all about balance,” she says. “It is an art.Different wines from different grapes, different locations and different barrels or vats come together to make a wine that is a pure balance of style and taste.”
We start by tasting each wine, all barrel samples of the yet-to-be released 2015 vintage.
Grenache No 1: a jolt to the senses with juicy, ripe plum and cassis fruits, sweet roasted peppers, hibiscus flowers and lavender, with warm earthy undertones and hints of vanilla. Aged in gently used, but relatively new, oak barrels, I would happily drink this wine on its own.
Grenache No 2:grapes used in this grenache have had much more sun, and the wine is very different, with stronger notes of dried herbs – rosemary, sage – along with black pepper and cinnamon. Very ripe black plums, cassis and blackberries.
Syrah: a big wine, with super-ripe cassis, dried blackberry and prune, and generous aromas of smoke, leather, pepper and – dare I say – bacon fat. The tannins are very “puckery”.
Mourvèdre: a pleasant well-rounded drop, with black fruit, redcurrant and dried cranberry. Generous mocha and chocolate notes balance the tannins. Happiness in a glass.
In a large beaker, Mélia-Bachas deftly recreates the blend for her 2015 vintage: 30 per cent each of the two grenaches, 20 to 25 per cent syrah and 15 to 20 per cent mourvèdre. Her signature wine is not in the heavy-handed alcoholic style of some Rhône wines but more influenced by Burgundy; more mellow and showing the characters of red fruit. I notice a tarry chewiness that she says is due to its extreme youthfulness. It has lots of cassis but no hint of bacon fat.
My turn on the beaker: I use lots of grenache No 1 – 45 per cent – and only 20 per cent of grenache No 2. I like bacon, so add 25 per cent syrah, and 10 per cent mourvèdre. I expect my blend to have a ripe, juicy, smoky nose, but I get a delicious surprise – sweetly spiced berries, lush florals, a subtle smoky punch from the syrah’s red peppers and that bacon fat. I feel like a proud chef.
My blend will be in the barrel for a few months and then I will get a precious few bottles to cherish and share with friends.
Nellie Ming Lee is a food stylist and part-time sommelier studying with the Court of Master Sommeliers