Of all the wine bottles crowded on supermarket shelves, those that fall into the category vaguely dubbed “red blends” have been flying off the fastest for quite a while now. People just can’t get enough of these unrelated-grape mashups, loosely modeled on the edgy Zinfandel-based blend The Prisoner, created by Dave Phinney more than 20 years ago now. At a time when most winemakers were focused on mono-varietal wines, Phinney broke new ground by splashing other grapes (Cab, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Charbono) into a Zin, and the wine went viral before going viral was a thing. What started in 2000 as a mere 385 innovative cases grew to 165,000 cases in 2017.
It’s safe to say that today’s imitators don’t all have Phinney’s vision. Many of those supermarket red blends are generic free-for-alls, devoid of any distinctive character—no purpose visible for why the disparate grapes got together in one bottle. You’re left to wonder perhaps they were left over from making other wines or simply created from the cheapest grapes on the bulk market. And there’s the fact that the wines are generally pretty sweet.
This has all given blending a black eye, and a reality check is in order. Blending at the craft level is the foundation of most winemaking. And there’s fine traditional precedent for blending: Champagne grapes with Champagne grapes, Bordeaux with Bordeaux, Rhône with Rhône.
But a contingent of winemakers on the West Coast aims to break those rules for good reason—blend across tradition for intentional effect—at a quality level well beyond those lower market shelves. In the right winemakers’ hands, even grapes that wouldn’t seem to play well together can create a whole that’s bigger than the sum its parts. Innovators in California and Washington have used a mélange of grapes to layer flavors and textures to create exceptional wines you’d never confuse mass market red blends. Here are seven of our favorites.
L’Aventure 2018 Estate Cuvée Willow Creek District, Paso Robles
This remarkable vintage of L’Aventure founder Stephan Asseo’s signature blend (the formerly Bordeaux-based winemaker relocated to Paso in part to break Old World rules)—45 percent Syrah, 40 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 15 percent Petit Verdot—elicited a perfect 100-point score from critic Jeb Dunnuck. Leaning more toward Cabernet than Syrah, the nose is a sexy, complex swirl of dark-fruited liqueur perfumed with purple flowers, anise and other warm spices, dark chocolate and crushed rock. Rich and juicy black currant, blackberry, mulberry and a touch of red plum spill in rich succession on a compelling palate, seamless and perfectly balanced between freshness and opulence, through an incredible finish. Silky textures belie the ageability of this one, but good luck resisting it in your cellar for very long.
DeLille Cellars 2017 Doyenne Red Yakima Valley
In a blind tasting, it would be hard to nail the varietal makeup of this blend from Washington’s iconic DeLille Cellars, perfect marriage that it is between Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. (In fact, founding winemaker—and proprietor—Chris Upchurch created the wine on the occasion of his wedding.) Blueberry and black plum aromas hint at Syrah, while cassis and blackberry nudge the profile toward Cab, with florals, herbs, tobacco, flint and forest taking both sides. Bright and juicy red berry, plum and currant flavors explode on the palate, with vibrant textures revealing good tannin structure. Altogether an elegant version of a Rhône-Bordeaux mashup.
Buty 2016 Rockgarden Estate Rediviva of the Stones Walla Walla Valley
From a Washington winery that pioneered cross-traditional blending in the northwest corner of the States comes a combo (81 percent Syrah, 12 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 7 percent Mourvèdre) that shows off the vibrancy and minerality of the aptly named Rocks District, which is on the Oregon side of Walla Walla Valley. This 2016 Buty Rediviva opens with floral aromas and red earth before giving up a beautiful succession of aromas that will make Syrah lovers happy: blueberry, bacon fat, a hit of pepper, sweet pipe tobacco, black olive and warm spice. The fruit on the palate—more blueberry, red plum, black raspberry, orange peel—lingers long and is balanced by a vein of savory crushed herbs against a foil of silky textures.
Jonata 2018 Todos Red Ballard Canyon, Santa Ynez Valley
The varietal mix in this inky, delicious kitchen-sink vineyard blend from Jonata is—stay with me here—45 percent Syrah, 21 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 14 percent Petit Verdot, 9 percent Petite Sirah, 5 percent Merlot and 6 percent “miscellaneous.” Winemaker Matt Dees roughs out the recipe as “50 percent Syrah, 30 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 20 percent chaos.” If the last is true, this is chaos that ends in harmony. Gorgeous sweet-savory aromas open, with crushed rock, a little smoke, tobacco leaf and leather layered under purple flowers, blueberries and dark plums. Red fruit flavors lead, then turn darker, to juicy and exotically spiced berry liqueur, with hints of espresso carrying into a savory finish. Dees calls the energy and structure here a “10-variety ensemble effort.”
Paraduxx 2018 Rector Creek Vineyard Block 4 Red Napa Valley
From Duckhorn’s Napa Valley brand devoted to varietal blending, this unusual, small-block Paraduxx blend is 75 percent Petit Verdot and 25 Percent Zinfandel. Its Petit Verdot–driven nose offers up high-toned florals and exotic spices with crushed herbs around the edges: Vanilla, cardamom, bay, loam and graphite layer under blackberry aromas. Beautiful juicy red and black fruit flavors follow—a partnership of red plums, cassis and slightly briary blackberry, with a hint of wild blueberry—delivered with compelling energy and balanced by a subtle savory side. The blend offers the show-stopping complexity of Petit Verdot with the fruit-driven appeal of Zinfandel.
Saviah Cellars 2018 Hunt & Gather Red Walla Walla Valley
This vibrant Bordeaux-Rhône blend from Washington’s Saviah (60 percent Cab, 40 percent Syrah) is another beauty from The Rocks District. The nose opens in Cabernet territory, with blackberry and cassis, forest notes and clove, but with time in the glass, Syrah’s wilder side emerges: blueberry backed by wild game. Intense fruit pops on the palate—red plum, raspberry and blueberry joining blackberry and cassis—layered with hints of tobacco leaf and black olive over a beautiful silky structure.
Chester Kidder 2018 Red Columbia Valley
This Bordeaux-Rhône blend (64 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 28 percent Syrah and the balance Petit Verdot) from Gilles Nicault, winemaker for Washington’s Long Shadows collection, is no cookie-cutter red! Deeply aromatic, spiced and earthy, the nose combines cassis, damp loam and hints of graphite, with violets and mint emerging in the glass. Blue fruit joins dark mulberry and sweet spice, with lovely tension on the palate.