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Blending Zinfandel at Sausal Winery


So, how hard could it be to blend Zinfandel? I mean, don’t you just fill a beaker halfway with Zinfandel and then fill it to the top with... Zinfandel? Um, no. You don’t.

If you want to make a Zin of consequence, complexity, sophistication and serious enjoyability as Sausal Winery does, you probably need to add some Sangiovese and/or Petite Sirah. Not too much though. You need to have at least 75% of your wine consisting of Zinfandel or you can’t call it Zinfandel. You’d have to call it “Red Table Wine.” And since that’s about as generic a descriptor as there is, your wine won’t sell.

Nonetheless, I was feeling confident going into the members’ blending day at Sausal. After all, I knew I wasn’t going to have to deal with any Shiraz. And I’d learned to listen to my nose. Besides, the folks at Sausal are friendly and the actual winemaker, Dave Demostene was going to be there. I knew I could count on him to talk me off the ledge if I started edging toward 87% Petite Sirah.

Sausal is a family-owned winery located in Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley. They have owned this vineyard property since 1956. However, the family’s involvement in the Alexander Valley wine industry goes back to the turn of the century. Many of Sausal Winery’s vines go back even further. They have a good number of Zinfandel vines that were planted sometime before 1877.

Sausal Winery makes both Zinfandel and Cabernet, the varietals for which Alexander Valley is most respected, as well Sangiovese and Petite Sirah. All of their wines are made with estate fruit. In the past, Sausal has also made wine for or sold grapes to other prominent wineries such as Grgich Hills. The wines were sold under those wineries’ labels with an Alexander Valley designation.

The blending day I attended at Sausal was the first that they had ever done, but it didn’t show. Blending events are best done on a fairly small scale because you need some elbow room and having too many people leads to chaos. This particular event was set up for about 18 people. (I understand that it sold out almost immediately after the invitation email was sent to Sausal’s club members.)

While we waited for all the attendees to arrive, some light snacks were provided. Once everyone was present, we moved into the barrel room. Three rectangular folding tables had been set up there end to end. The tables were covered with plastic (wine-resistant) table cloths and equipped with beakers, graduated cylinders, pipettes, bottles of component wine, glasses and pencils and paper for recording our work.

The Sausal folks gave us all some instructions on how to evaluate the component wines, how to read the cylinders, etc. And they made sure that we didn’t run low on the component wines. (That’s been a pitfall at some other blending events. People want to try a lot of combinations and it’s easy to run short on wine.)

I tasted the Zinfandel component first. It was good, but lacked flair. It was slightly lighter in body than I wanted my final product to be. It had good, ripe fruit but was wanting for a bit of acidity and bright fruit as well as structure and earthiness. In choral terms, the Zinfandel covered the alto and tenor ranges. I needed to add some soprano and bass.

Of the two remaining components, Sangiovese was clearly the most likely to hit high notes. True to form, this particular Sangiovese was quite a bit lighter in body and color than the Zinfandel with less alcohol but a lot more acidity. The flavors and aromas were centered around tart cherries. There were also herbal notes that I thought would be interesting in small doses.

The Petite Sirah was nearly a polar opposite. It was inky purple in color with rich, chalky tannins and not a lot of acidity. It had nice black fruit flavors plus some earth, bramble and dark chocolate. It was very masculine and fully qualified to sing bass.

At this point, I started making blends. I began with 75% Zinfandel and about equal parts of Sangiovese and Petite Sirah. Tasting through different attempts, I quickly realized that a little bit of the Sangiovese was going to go a long way. In the end, I wound up with a blend that was 80% Zinfandel, 16% Petite Sirah, 4% Sangiovese and 100% great. Both the nose and the flavor were complex. It had backbone but was definitely drinkable right away.

Once we all had our blends the way we wanted them, we each mixed up a 750ml batch. (There’s a bit of arithmetic involved in this that can become difficult if one has been drinking rather than spitting the samples.) We then poured our samples into nice green Bordeaux style bottles. Dave put a cork in each bottle using an antique hand-corking machine. We then got our choice of capsule colors and used the old machine to put those on. Finally, we used colored markers to create labels for our bottles on self-adhesive wine label stickers. My cuvee, “Fred’s Original Zin,” featured a snake and an apple an d clearly demonstrated my complete lack of drawing skill.

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Sausal Winery’s blending day was great fun. The people are nice, the wine is really good and the whole thing was very well organized. And, after the blending, the winery provided a very tasty lunch for everyone, along with plenty of wine. It was an excellent day.

In case you get to do some blending, and I hope you do, here are a few tips:

Mixing the varietals together to get something that you like is only part of the challenge. You have to be able to keep track of what you’ve done. This is harder than it sounds. It’s easy to fill a 100ml cylinder and know what you put in it. But, if you then take some of that blend to taste, your sample is no longer 100ml.

Things can get really confusing at this point if you add a little bit of this and a little bit of that to the blend. It’s really much safer to start each new blend from scratch. If you have a limited amount of the component wines and don’t want to run out, you might want to make just 50ml of your first several blends. That’s more than enough to taste and the math is still pretty easy. Once you’ve got it dialed in closely and are trying to decide on differences of a single ml of a particular component, you can go to 100ml batches. (It’s very difficult to precisely measure in increments of less than 1ml with the equipment one is normally given.)

If you are trying to be precise, there are some other things to keep in mind. First, measure your liquids the same way each time. When you’re looking at the meniscus --- that’s the curved top surface of the wine in the graduated cylinder --- it will be convex, the sides higher than the center. Make your measurements from the bottom or center of the meniscus each time.

There are also different types of pipettes used for collecting component wines and depositing them in the cylinder. One kind is essentially like a drinking straw, completely open on both ends. To collect the component, you insert one end of the tube into the component and then put your finger over the other end. When you remove the tube from the wine, the tube stays full until you remove your finger.

The other type of pipette is similar but has a cotton plug near one end. With those, you insert the end without cotton into the wine and then use your mouth to suck wine into the tube. You don’t want to suck in too much though. If the cotton gets wet, it will be hard to create enough suction in the tube for the next sample. Personally, I prefer the finger-style pipettes. I find them easier to use and you can be more precise in how much wine you collect in the tube. And, if you’re blending with friends, it’s more sanitary. If all you have is a “sucky” pipette, you can convert it to finger-style if you can find a way to remove that cotton plug.

This article is original to Copyright 2010 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

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