Terroir is a complex subject. Just defining the word causes problems, but I feel it encompasses four things: climate, soil, aspect and human intervention. By putting these together in one place you create grapes – and thus wines – that are unique.
I like terroir and I drink plenty of wines that I believe exhibit it. What I do not like is the notion, by default, that wines without the imprint of a specific micro site cannot be equally profound.
At the niche end of wine, mixing four vineyard sites together is just one more human intervention, and intervention is out of vogue. Yet bottling single vineyard sites is a modern-day fashion, not a return to some glorious terroir-laden past.
Indeed, too many producers from Piedmont to the Loire make them for no more reason than that it is fashionable to do so. There is a presumption that the message of a small site is going to be better than the story of a region that can be told through a blend. But a single site needs exceptional terroir to produce a balanced, profound wine in its own right, and terroir can just as easily manifest itself as excessive acidity or high tannin.
A single site needs exceptional terroir to produce a balanced, profound wine
Dirk Niepoort puts it nicely in Jamie Goode’s Wine Science. He makes some of the finest wines from the Douro, a region that offers huge diversity and potential for distinct single vineyard offerings. But he prefers to blend, explaining: ‘As a rule I believe blended wines to be better than single-vineyard wines… I think a good blender has to be someone that understands, knows and respects different terroirs.’
Away from the niche, blending is intrinsically linked to the big and bulk producers. This is natural. Anyone wanting to sell a large amount of wine at a set price point needs consistency that can only be achieved by blending. Yet among all this bland consistency (in itself a skilful thing to achieve) it is easy to overlook many of the world’s great, fine wines that are a result of the blenders’ art.
There is less interference from winemaking technique when fashioning the great ports destined for bottle ageing. Pretty much all the most famous houses make their top wine by blending vineyards. In a nice role reversal, when quality is not there to make true vintage port, they sell single vineyards (quintas) as earlier drinking, cheaper options.
Perhaps the most unashamed and skilful blenders are the Australians who deploy it throughout the winemaking spectrum from £5.99 to Penfold’s Grange. One of the finest wines I drank all summer was Hardy’s Eileen Hardy Chardonnay; it is ludicrous value and comes from fruit separated by a sea and 350 or so miles (Yarra Valley and Tasmania). Would the two (or more) wines that made it have been better on their own? Who knows or cares when the blend is so compelling.