Make Room in Your Cellar for California Red Blends

Home to many reputable single-vineyard bottlings, California's red blends are starting to take center stage. Here are our editors' recommendations.
From left to right; Larkmead 2015 Salon (Napa Valley), Brutocao 2014 Coro Mendo­cino Red Blend and Epoch 2014 Ingenuity (Paso Robles Willow Creek District) / Photo by Jens Johnson

In California, blends are both a blessing and a curse. The state is blessed to be able to grow a wide variety of grapes, and there are no legal or bureaucratic restrictions on doing so.

But of course, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. As such, California offers blended wines at every quality and price level. Some are life-changing and revelatory, while others wither and lack character.

In a land planted to its fair majority of hearty reds, from Cabernet Sauvignon to Zinfandel, the grapes are ripe, structured and primed for cellaring, in standalone or blended form. But when partnered with the right companions, they can strike a harmonious tone of lush fruit and bold tannins that can unfurl and evolve slowly over time.

California also pays homage to a historic lineage of field blends. Many of the old vineyards used to source these bottlings were planted by Italian immigrants before Prohibition. They’re often rooted in Zinfandel and Petite Sirah, but they also can contain other lesser-known varieties, like Carignan and Mondeuse.

Elsewhere, Bordeaux-style or Cabernet Sauvignon-based blends are the standard. Many regions are rich in ripe Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes, though Rhône and Mediterranean-inspired blends abound, too.

If diversity is what you seek in your cellar, California’s top red blends are for you. —Virginie Boone

From left to right; Alpha Omega 2013 Proprietary Red (Napa Valley), Anderson Conn Valley 2015 Aurum (Napa Valley), Larkmead 2015 Salon (Napa Valley) and Joseph Phelps 2014 Insignia Estate Grown Red (Napa Valley)
From left to right; Alpha Omega 2013 Proprietary Red (Napa Valley), Anderson Conn Valley 2015 Aurum (Napa Valley), Larkmead 2015 Salon (Napa Valley) and Joseph Phelps 2014 Insignia Estate Grown Red (Napa Valley) / Photo by Jens Johnson

Napa Valley Blends

In 1974, a Midwest-born construction entrepreneur and his German winemaker sent a lightning bolt through the Napa Valley with the first vintage of a red blend they came to call Insignia. It was made from Cabernet Sauvignon grown in the Stags Leap District, with 6% Merlot.

Joseph Phelps Vineyards’ Insignia has become one of Napa Valley’s standard bearers and an inspiration to producers of fine blends everywhere. From the beginning, Phelps was making a statement.

“The proprietary name was selected to represent the finest lots available for each vintage, and to emphasize the importance of blending over varietal designation as a determinate of quality,” said Phelps at University of California, Berkeley, in 1996. (He passed away in 2015.)

At the time Phelps launched Insignia, many of the region’s wineries were focused on varietal wines. This lauded blend was a good way to educate American consumers and encourage them to move away from sweet, high-octane wines like Ripple.

Phelps was inspired by Bordeaux’s marquee blended wines like Châteaux Latour, Mouton-Rothschild and Haut-Brion. However, he didn’t own any grapes of his own at the time, so he had to be flexible. His winemaker, Walter Schug, just tried to make the best wine he could every year from the best grapes they could buy.

Some 40 years later, Ashley Hepworth, Joseph Phelps’ current winemaker, has a lot more with which to work. The winery owns several estate vineyards, where she’s able to pull the best lots each year. Insignia became a 100% estate-grown wine in 2004.

The Why, When and How of Wine Blending

“Blending is the craft of winemaking, for sure,” says Hepworth. “Insignia is a work in progress throughout the year.”

Hepworth keeps the varieties separate after harvest, when she chooses between Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot, though not all five are represented in every vintage. She starts blending the following March, not really thinking about the wine’s ultimate composition until the end.

“It is important to let the vintage speak, but I’m a little draconian about what goes into Insignia,” says Hepworth. “If a wine is not O.K. on its own, it’s not going to be O.K. in the blend.”

The Napa Valley is now as famous for its Bordeaux-style blends as for signature single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons.

Opus One is Robert Mondavi’s contribution to the genre, originally in partnership with Baron Philippe de Rothschild. Inglenook released the first Rubicon in 1978, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Then came other proprietary reds from producers like Pahlmeyer, Beaulieu Vineyard, Cain, Dominus, Ramey, Dalla Valle and Alpha Omega.

“Napa is amazing for the diversity of terroir in a small region with 123 soil variations,” says Jean Hoefliger, winemaker for Alpha Omega. “In addition to that diversity, we have different varieties.

“When you do a Bordeaux blend with that many components to pick from, you have to add complexity and depth. If you do a Cabernet, it is a very masculine-framed variety. If you can add to that a feminine Merlot, a soul-searcher Cab Franc and superhero like Petit Verdot, you can fill the wine’s gaps and add layers of complexity. Blends are an expression of the greatness of Napa Valley.” —V.B.

Alpha Omega 2013 Proprietary Red (Napa Valley); $100, 98 points. This blends 61% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Merlot and 7% Cabernet Franc into a seamless expression of black pepper, garrigue, clove and pencil. Old world in style and in full command of its power, it offers generously layered, intensely robust tannin and concentration that flirts with richness. Half barrel-fermented and half stainless-steel, it shows promise for cellaring; enjoy best 2023–2038. Cellar Selection—V.B.

Larkmead 2015 Salon (Napa Valley); $200, 98 points. A blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Cabernet Franc, this is a tremendous wine, offering grippy red-currant, tobacco and graphite components around a full-bodied core of weight and breadth. Powerful yet elegant, it retains and celebrates much of the Cab Franc character in its unabashed embrace of dried herb, clove and violet. Enjoy 2025–2030. —V.B.

Anderson Conn Valley 2015 Aurum (Napa Valley); $395, 97 points. Aurum, Latin for gold, is the first release of this high-level, small-production wine—a blend of 83% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Petit Verdot, 7% Cabernet Franc and 1% Merlot. Spicy clove, black pepper and cigar box highlight a grippy, structured and expansive palate of blackberry and cherry. It’s eager for more time in the cellar; enjoy 2025–2035. Cellar Selection—V.B.

Joseph Phelps 2014 Insignia Estate Grown Red (Napa Valley); $250, 96 points. This fine vintage of Insignia combines 87% Cabernet Sauvignon with 9% Petit Verdot, 2% Malbec and 2% Cabernet Franc. Soft, supple and seamless, it offers rich but balanced cassis and milk chocolate flavors, with supportive and complementary oak. It should do well in the cellar and will be best from 2024–2034. Cellar Selection—V.B.

Shafer 2015 TD-9 (Napa Valley); $60, 94 points. This is a new offering from the producer, sparked by winemaker Elias Fernandez’s desire to make a Merlot-based blend, rather than a varietal Merlot. It is an estate-grown blend of 56% Merlot, 28% Cabernet Sauvignon and 16% Malbec. Rich and concentrated, it’s delightfully robust and vibrant, offering a mix of blackberry, blueberry and caramel chocolate flavors that finish in soft, integrated oak. Editors’ Choice—V.B.

From left to right; Tablas Creek 2015 Esprit de Tablas (Adelaida District), Epoch 2014 Ingenuity (Paso Robles Willow Creek District), Denner 2015 Ditch Digger (Paso Robles Willow Creek District) and Clos Solène 2015 Harmonie (Paso Robles)
From left to right; Tablas Creek 2015 Esprit de Tablas (Adelaida District), Epoch 2014 Ingenuity (Paso Robles Willow Creek District), Denner 2015 Ditch Digger (Paso Robles Willow Creek District) and Clos Solène 2015 Harmonie (Paso Robles) / Photo by Jens Johnson

Paso Robles Blends

Paso Robles has been home to Zinfandel vines for more than a century, and Cabernet Sauvignon since the mid-1900s. But it was traditional Rhône-style red blends that gained the region critical acclaim and launched it onto the international stage.

The story started in 1975, when Gary Eberle planted the Central Coast’s first Syrah vineyard at Estrella River Winery. The resulting “Estrella clone” is now planted across the U.S.

The plot thickened around 1990, when Robert Haas teamed with the Perrin family of Château de Beaucastel to create the Rhône-focused Tablas Creek Vineyard brand. With cuttings imported from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, their prominent nursery spread the gospel of those grapes near and far.

By the early 2000s, Rhône-style red blends were all the rage. They were typically based on Grenache or Syrah, often with a hearty dose of Mourvèdre and featuring dollops of Counoise, Cinsault and other lesser-known Rhône varieties. Since then, Rhône plantings have seen “dramatic growth,” according to Christopher Taranto, communications director of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance.

Rhône-style red blends gained Paso Robles critical acclaim and launched the region onto the international stage.

“Over the past 10 years, we have seen many new brands that focus on the Rhône varieties get established and earn many accolades,” says Taranto.

That includes winemakers from the Old World. “It reminded me of the South of France, where I grew up,” says Guillaume Fabre, owner/winemaker at Clos Solène.

Like fellow Frenchman Stephan Asseo of L’Aventure, who Fabre interned with, Fabre left his family’s wine business back home to stake his claim in Paso Robles, where the weather, rolling hills and soil are perfect for these grapes.

“These wines are super alive and fresh due to the limestone and the shale,” he says.

They’re different than the Rhône, of course. “With the sunshine, we have the ability to get the sugars higher, so the wines tend to be a bit bigger, more fruit-driven,” says Kevin Jussila, owner and winemaker of Kukkula Vineyard. He grows about 50 acres of almost entirely Rhône varieties.

“The distinction today is that there is a bit of dialing back,” he says. “I want that richness, but I want to feel some restraint in what we’re doing.”

​When Anthony Yount became winemaker at Denner Vineyards in 2009, he inherited the Ditch Digger, a Grenache-based blend modeled on traditional red Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

“It’s rooted in tradition, but game for a little New World flair,” says Yount.

To him, the red blend speaks directly to place. “Red blends are a better interpretation of the vineyard than a single varietal,” says Yount. “You get rid of varietal typicity and, instead, just say, ‘This is our vineyard.’ That’s a cool representation.” —Matt Kettmann 

Epoch 2014 Ingenuity (Paso Robles Willow Creek District); $70, 95 points. Viscous and dark in the glass, this wine’s unctuous nose shows black currant, violet and a hint of hot asphalt. The blend of 50% Syrah, 25% Grenache, 18% Mourvèdre and 7% Petite Sirah is tight on the palate, where a tarry texture carries flavors of concentrated black currant, fresh blackberry and wild chaparral herbs. Drink 2019–2029. Cellar Selection—M.K.

Clos Solène 2015 Harmonie (Paso Robles); $85, 94 points. Candied rose petals, pomegranate, hibiscus, ripe red melons and a touch of baking spice show on the nose of this blend of 60% Grenache, 26% Mourvèdre and 14% Syrah. The palate is fresh and lively, with bright red fruit and carnation florality, made more complex and elegant by the dried herbs, pepper, juniper and charred beef finish. —M.K.

Kukkula 2015 Aatto (Adelaida District); $40, 93 points. Here’s a wine that puts Counoise in the driver’s seat to great effect. Bolstered by 36% Mourvèdre and 19% Grenache, the wine starts with candied cherry, tangy cranberry, red flowers, white pepper and potpourri on the nose. Exotic spices, familiar herbs and bright red fruit shine on the lively palate. Editors’ Choice—M.K.

Denner 2015 Ditch Digger (Paso Robles Willow Creek District); $70, 93 points. Black currant, warm chocolate and sultry spices meet with loamy soil aromas on the nose of this blend of 55% Grenache, 20% Mourvèdre, 10% Syrah, 5% Counoise, 5% Cinsault and 5% Tannat. It’s still a very young wine, but the palate offers elderberry, pepper and dried herbs. It’s the mouth-coating texture that’s most compelling; though very firm now, it will hold this wine for years. Drink 2020–2030. Cellar Selection—M.K.

Tablas Creek 2015 Esprit de Tablas (Adelaida District); $55, 92 points. Elegance is prominent on this flagship blend of 49% Mourvèdre, 25% Grenache, 21% Syrah and 5% Counoise, starting with dried red flowers, dark red berries, char, wood spice and pepper dust on the nose. Red plums rise on the palate, lifted by fresh herbs, proving light on its feet yet redolent with compelling flavors and tons of body. —M.K.

From left to right; Brutocao 2014 Coro Mendo­cino Red Blend (Mendocino County), Brutocao 2014 Coro Mendo­cino Red Blend (Mendocino County) and Cedarville 2015 The Rules of Fair Play (Fair Play)
From left to right; Boeger 2015 Miglioré (El Dorado), Tinto Rey 2015 Super Tinto Estate Bottled (Dunnigan Hills), Brutocao 2014 Coro Mendo­cino Red Blend (Mendocino County) and Cedarville 2015 The Rules of Fair Play (Fair Play) / Photo by Jens Johnson

Northern California Blends

The open secret about red blends from Northern California’s far-flung vineyards is Zinfandel. Even if you don’t see its name on the bottle, the variety likely takes a leading role in any blend from Mendocino County, the Sierra Foothills or Central Valley.

Three of the five top-rated red blends recommended to the left are based primarily from Zinfandel, which uses its jammy, berrylike fruitiness to enrich the aromas and fatten the flavors.

It’s usually coupled with Petite Sirah or Syrah to add dark spices, deep color and supple tannins. Ironically, Zinfandel and Syrah as varietal wines have lackluster sales growth, while people flock to anonymous blends made from them.

Zinfandel often takes a leading role in red blends from Mendocino County, the Sierra Foothills or Central Valley.

In 2000, a small group of Mendocino wineries conceived of a way to craft red blends that feature Zinfandel and other heritage red varieties of the area. The wineries used the same distinctive bottles and labels across their diverse brands to create a cohesive lineup.

They coined the collection Coro Mendocino. Coro means “chorus” in Latin, and the idea was to make harmonious blends of several varietal voices traditional to Mendocino.

The Brutocao 2014 Coro Mendocino is a great example of the eight Coro bottlings offered. This complex, structured wine contains a majority share of Zinfandel, with additional amounts of Syrah, Carignan and dashes of Barbera and Petite Sirah.

While not a Coro wine, the Atrea 2016 Old Soul Red also comes from Mendocino and similarly exemplifies the region’s blending mastery. It layers Zinfandel with Petite Sirah, Malbec and Syrah for a firmly concentrated and tannic wine that should age nicely for another few years.

But Northern California isn’t all Zin country. In warm, mountainous wine regions like El Dorado or Dunnigan Hills, other Mediterranean grape varieties thrive.

How California's 2017 Vintages Prevailed

Boeger’s deep and delicious Miglioré, which means “best” in Italian, comes from the Boeger family’s estate vineyards in El Dorado County that reach 3,500 feet above sea level. It focuses on the northern Italian grape variety Refosco, with support from Carignan, Aglianico and Charbono.

The bold but easy-drinking 2015 Super Tinto, from Tinto Rey, speaks Spanish with a French accent. The base of the blend is the traditional Spanish grape Tempranillo, with French-inspired additions of 24% Petit Verdot and 13% Tannat, as well as 9% of the Spanish grape Graciano.

It represents a whole school of California red blends that stretch the definition of this fast-growing and incredibly diverse category of wine. —Jim Gordon 

Brutocao 2014 Coro Mendo­cino Red Blend (Mendocino County); $40, 92 points. A light floral note in the aroma joins up with layered and ripe fruit flavors that are handsomely accented by cedar, cocoa and balsam, for a complex and lasting impression on the palate. Full body and firm tannins provide good structure to balance the rich flavors in this Zinfandel-based, traditional Northern California blend. —J.G.

Tinto Rey 2015 Super Tinto Estate Bottled (Dunnigan Hills); $22, 90 points. This wine is big and bold yet still easy to drink. It has oodles of black fruit aromas, dense fruit flavors and generous dashes of spicy, smoky oak. The texture is firm enough to offer balance, yet is silky enough to remain enjoyable. Editors’ Choice—J.G.

Atrea 2016 Old Soul Red (Mendocino County); $25, 90 points. Bold in flavor and stiff in structure, this full-bodied wine is laced with strong tannins and will need rich, fatty food to pair with. Still, it reveals nicely concentrated blueberry and blackberry flavors, subdued oak accents and a well-concentrated and layered composition. —J.G.

Boeger 2015 Miglioré (El Dorado); $30, 90 points. A blend of Italian grape varieties, this wine has deep, delicious berry aromas that lead to mouthcoating blackberry flavors and a moderately tannic texture that supports the ripe fruitiness very well. —J.G.

Cedarville 2015 The Rules of Fair Play (Fair Play); $36, 90 points. An enticing toasty spicy oak aroma leads to good, ripe blackberry and black-cherry flavors that are layered and concentrated. This full-bodied wine is made from 62% Zinfandel and 38% Petite Sirah. It shows a lot of oak character but does it well and backs it up with ample rich fruit notes and a moderately tannic texture. —J.G.

Published on November 5, 2018
Topics: Wine and Ratings



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