Kushman on Wine – Cooking Up a Good Wine

Chefs and winemakers share blending in common.


Good cooks build foundations for dishes with broths, soups, and sauces, all by deftly blending flavors and textures. Also for good winemakers, one of the most crucial — and underappreciated — fundamentals is blending.

Thus, chefs and winemakers share something beyond cultural rock-star status — the great ones are masters of blending. In fact, one way to think of wine is to compare it to a complex sauce. Both take a range of ingredients; though each may be handled differently, all are mixed according to careful timing, ultimately delivering something greater than the parts.

For winemakers, blending is not just for wines that call themselves blends. All wines are blends.

It starts, as everything does with wine, in the vineyard. The vast majority of wines are not just one kind of grape. Even if the bottle is labeled, say, cabernet sauvignon, it only must be 75 percent cab, and it’s rare when a cabernet doesn’t also have a touch of merlot or cabernet franc or maybe petite sirah. (Some wines, including Chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and pinot noir, often are just one kind of grape each, but they all have exceptions, too.)

Even if the wine does come from one variety, the grapes may come from a handful of vineyards. And if winemakers source from just one vineyard, they blend what they pick, and each block or each row can have its own unique qualities and flavors, depending on soils, exposure, and when the grapes are harvested.

Most often, winemakers choose a few different grapes to work together, the way a chef chooses ingredients. Also like chefs, they’ll gather those ingredients and wait to decide how much of each to use.

When the grapes get into the winery, blending options can be plentiful, even for a small winery. Grapes can be fermented in different tanks or with different yeasts. The wine can be aged in various tanks or barrels with different oak or levels of toast — barrel makers toast, or char, the insides of barrels, sometimes more heavily than others — to get flavors ranging from vanilla to herbs to, well, toast. Plus, every lot can be aged a different length of time.

Sometimes lots are aged separately and combined just before the wine goes into bottles. Other winemakers combine lots earlier in the aging process so the flavors coalesce uniquely, just as different ingredients enter a sauce at different times to create different results.

And there’s another chef-winemaker similarity. Think about the nuance of adding just one more pinch of pepper to a broth or just 1 percent of petit verdot to a cabernet. In the end, a great chef or winemaker had better have a terrific palate.

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