Are single varietal wines actually blends?

One of the topics that gets debated in wine circles (albeit less frequently than screwcaps vs corks, plastic bottles and wine list mark-ups) is a bit of legislation that relates to how South African wines are labelled. In this case I am talking about the allowance for up to 15% of a different grape to be included in a wine without having to mention it on the label.

So a bottle of 2008 Malema’s Reserve Pinotage (complete with back label calling for the nationalisation of all Pinotage vineyards as this is South Africa’s own grape) could include up to 15% Shiraz, for example. Of course this is a bit of a wine geek discussion and most wine drinkers may find it of very little relevance.

But a bottle of single malt ceases to be so if it is blended with another whisky. Would you mind your barman topping up your pint with 15% of another beer without telling you? It may not have a huge bearing on how much you enjoy the pint, but there’s something not quite right about it.

Tim James touched on the point in his recent post on Grape and after chatting to Cathy Marston on Twitter I thought I’d put down a few thoughts and in the process try to form an opinion of my own!

Essentially the question is whether producers should be allowed to include another grape in a wine labelled as a single varietal, without having to mention it on the bottle.

There is an argument that at less than 15% the other grape doesn’t alter the character of the labelled varietal. But then why add it? When you read about blended wines, the producer will often mention that there is a small percentage of grape XYZ which adds a little something to the overall wine. The 3% that they have chosen to include is motivated and by implication has an impact on the style of the wine that you’re drinking.

Adding a bit of Shiraz to Pinotage may make it a bit more appealing to the international palate, with a bit of spiciness or bold fruit. A bit of Semillon can add body and texture your Sauvignon Blanc, while a small percentage of Nouvelle injects that pyrazine packed grassy edge that some find appealing in New Zealand Sauvingon Blanc. The merits of Merlot and Cab Franc in Bordeaux style blends is no secret, so is a wine labelled Cabernet Sauvignon that includes 15% Merlot still just a Cabernet?

The 15% can also be from another vintage. This can give the winemaker the opportunity to add a little freshness to an older tank of wine before it’s bottled, or perhaps to avoid wasting wine from the previous vintage by incorporating it into the new release.

There is also the issue of competitions and awards. Producers could gain an ‘advantage’ through adding additional complexity or character to their single varietal wines by including other grapes, although the fact that this tool is available to everyone makes it a bit moot. On the other hand, is a blend of 98% Shiraz and 2% Mourvèdre really a blended wine? Or is it just a Shiraz? What category should it be entered in come competition time?

Although this may sound like a fairly petty issue, it is worthy of a mention when we consider the amount of interrogation and analysis that goes into wine assessment. The emergence of new regions and small producers looking to carve a niche has meant very close inspection of the regional differences expressed through varietal wines. So if we are to compare the merits of Shiraz from two difference vineyards as an expression of terroir, surely there should be an assurance of what is actually in the bottle?

2 Responses to “Are single varietal wines actually blends?”

  1. Peter F May says:

    The implication is the 85% rule is solely South African, but its not, it is an EU rule that SAf came into line with in 2006, before in SAf 75% was the min, same as in USA.

    My own thoughts are in this 2002 article

    Sometimes odd varieties are used for topping barrels during aging, and how many vineyards are planted to 100% of the variety they think it is?

  2. Glenn Watson says:

    as far as I’m concerned, anything that has more than one variety of grape is a blend. Even if it had 1% of a different grape the wine is no longer a single variety and is a blend of two grapes. Depsite all the laws etc I’d never consider a wine with two varieties, even if 1%, a single variety wine.