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Old Grapes, New Twists

Playing the role of strange bedfellows, diverse grapes can make delicious blends.

Blended wines are hardly new. Bordeaux is traditionally anchored by Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. In Tuscany, Chianti is rarely 100 percent Sangiovese. France's Châteuneuf-du-Pape can meld as many as 13 grapes.

But consider the unassuming Red Truck, a tangy, berry-rich California red that debuted with the 2002 vintage. Featuring six grapes of disparate origins (Syrah and Mourvedre from the Rhône, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc from Bordeaux, Pinot Noir from Burgundy, and the French hybrid Alicante Bouschet), Red Truck is a veritable kitchen-sink blend.

Red Truck's multi-culti makeup is novel but hardly alone; similar examples of "Splendid Blendeds" have been cropping up with eyebrow-raising frequency over the past decade. They are emblematic of a growing trend toward creative, no-grapes-barred blending that is particularly evident in New World wine regions.

Indeed, what sets these new-wave wines apart from traditional Old World blends is that the combination of grapes is not driven by agricultural pragmatism. Back in the day, if you will, the focus of European winemakers was rooted squarely in the vineyard, where producers first had to determine which varieties grew well in their particular soil and climate. Then, if several grapes could enhance one another when blended, so be it.

But in most New World regions, growing conditions are simply more hospitable, so more types of grapes grow well in the same basic area. At the same time, modern technology has made the transportation of grapes and bulk wine much easier. (So even producers who don't grow their own grapes can get into the act.) Factor in the overload of Chardonnays, Cabernets, and Merlots fighting for shelf space and it's no wonder that current-day vintners are trying new tricks with old grapes.

California isn't the only hotbed of crossover blends. Australians stir up crisp whites from half Semillon, half Chardonnay and sturdy Shiraz-Cabs. Italian vintners have found new dancing partners for Sangiovese. But the trend of Splendid Blended wines is especially strong in California, where it can be seen as a natural step in the state's rapid evolution. After getting the hang of varietal wines in the 1970s and '80s, California vintners began to ape the European models, even spawning the nicknames Meritage (for Bordeaux blends) and Rhône Rangers, for wines using Rhône grape varieties. Imitation, however, has been shifting steadily to innovation, leading to the current upsurge in unorthodox blending.

The alphabet-soup impression that one may get from simply reading the grape varieties at play in these new-wave blends can be misleading. Despite their diverse recipes, the taste profiles of many Splendid Blendeds priced under $12 are remarkably simpatico. By design they are effusively fresh and fruity, with little of the earthiness commonly found in Old World wines, and with smooth textures that scream "Drink me now!" Higher-priced Splendid Blendeds, however, will usually be rougher in texture, more obvious in structure (tannin and acidity) and more intense. Apply similar logic to creative white blends: Lower-priced examples will be loaded with fruit, while pricier ones will deliver more body and complexity.

Bottom line: Expect more of the unexpected in the way of wines whose sum is greater than their parts. Ultimately, experimentation on the winery end invites experimentation at the uncorking end.

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