Testing our Symmetry Chops: The Rodney Strong Meritage Blending Workshop

I think it’s fair to say if I could hit the replay button on life, I’d come back as a winemaker (….working at a winery with gently rolling hills, south and southwestern exposures, limestone soil, a long growing season, warm climate – where you don’t have to bury the vines, 36 inches of annual rainfall, AND no tarantulas, snakes or Huntsman spiders in the vineyard or winery – since this is make-believe).

RS ava-alexander-valley-01-300dpi
Rodney Strong Vineyards – Alexander Valley. Photo Credit: Rodney Strong Vineyards

So, as a wannabe winemaker, it was a beautiful thing to see a Rodney Strong Meritage Blending Workshop on the agenda for the 2017 Wine Bloggers Conference. Bordeaux grapes from the 2013 vintage had been picked, sorted, fermented (indigenous yeast/natural ML) and pressed. The wine had been quietly resting in the finest French oak barrels just waiting for today’s winemaking apprentices- aka – us! – to work our blending magic.

This was serious nirvana. At last, I could tap my inner winemaker.

Rodney Strong winemaker
Winemaker – Greg Morthole. Photo Credit: Rodney Strong Vineyards

Director of Wine Education, Rachel Thralls and the ‘for-real’ Rodney Strong winemaker Greg Morthole led the session. They introduced us to Rodney Strong’s range of spectacular volcanic terroir and hillside vineyards in the Alexander Valley of Sonoma County.

Blenders.     Photo Credit: Rodney Strong Vineyards

We had a brief recap of the five red Bordeaux varietals, their structural and flavour idiosyncrasies, and what each contributes to the art of the blend. Each “apprentice” got a 5-ounce glass of virgin 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot. We were given a few minutes to get to know our varietal progeny: taste, spit, imprint, repeat. Five distinct grapes, each with a very unique aroma and taste profile.

Rodney Strong raw ingredients
Photo Credit: Rodney Strong Vineyards

Symmetry = Balance

The sixth glass in front of us was Rodney Strong’s award winning 2013 Meritage blend, Symmetry. This was Greg Morthole’s baby; an artisanal blend that represents the very best of the Alexander Valley AVA.

Symmetry, of course means balance, and the expectation was, we too, would craft a blend that’s harmonious, elegant and intensely flavoured. Ahem.

On the table was a beaker, a 10-ounce measurement stick, a spit bucket and a note to self: we had 20 minutes (what???!!!) to create our masterpiece! More directions followed: we could blend on our own or as a team. But in the end, we could only present one, final 10-ounce entry per group.

More fun? Yes! We get to add a marketing layer to the blend and “brand” our team name and wine. For someone who grew up in the advertising biz, this was icing on the cake!

Start your Blend-gines

Team WOW agreed we would collaborate and produce one blend for the group since that’s the democratic (lower case d) way. Our group consisted of assistant brand manager at Francis Ford Coppola– Lyndsey, wine tour guide and MOTHER of a winemaker, Lori, a Washington DC wine lover – Rachel, and me, – winemaker wannabe.

Team WOW 2Our team reviewed the math. Whatever varietals we mixed into the blend had to add up to 100% mark on the beaker. But if we tasted along the way – which of course we needed to – we’d come up short. We agreed we’d nail the blend – then duplicate the final formula! Four detail queens!

Now we had to decide on our wine style. For the Bordeaux blend, we could go Left Bank – Medoc – and amp up our offering with a healthy dose of Cab Sauv (think: power, backbone, tannin, age-worthiness). Or, we could follow right bank metrics, and lead with a silken Pomerol-like Merlot, making a softer, fruitier base blend for our Meritage (no clay but we had volcanic terroir!). Or, we could follow the Cheval Blanc model with Cab Franc underpinning the blend, for a heady aromatic and gentler tannic offering. Our director of education let it slip she had a Cab Franc bias, but then cautioned us not to pander to the judge (!) and follow our collective team palate.

So we did.

With mad scientist fervour, we tasted, measured, blended, dumped, re-programmed, re-programmed again, and then agreed: our base varietal would be Merlot. We would adopt the classic, plush example of the fabled right bank, seducing our prospective wine buyers with a velvety smooth, deep plum, layered Meritage. It was time to right the wrong dealt Merlot lo those 12 years ago by a sophomoric Pinot Noir obsessed character in Sideways.

DG blending science
Photo Credit: Rodney Strong Vineyards

Our Merlot would carry the day!

Our final blend featured a rich, rustic bouquet of red cherry, blueberries and ripe plumb with subtle mocha and cedar notes. Importantly, our Meritage blend had a gorgeous silky texture and soft, ripe tannins that were sure to warm our judges’ hearts. The final blend: 53 % Merlot, 23% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Cab Franc, 5% Petit Verdot. Palate nirvana, California approachable, beautiful balance all seductively wrapped in a brand we called “The Closer”.

Sadly, the judges didn’t agree.

Points for branding, but in the end, our blend-mates who created Pelee’s Red – (brilliantly named after the Hawaiian Volcanic Fire God) – took top prize with their Cab Franc dominant blend: 50% Cab Franc, 30% Merlot and 20% Malbec – also a risky proposition in Cab Sauv lovin’ California, but a gamble that paid off. Congrats to @Wolcottonwine who “beakered” the blend.

winning blend
Photo Credit: Gladys Horiuchi

So what did I learn?

The term Meritage is a term created in Napa to promote wines blended from Bordeaux’s “noble” varieties. The term was coined to represent the highest form of the winemaker’s art – blending.

I think team WOW led with a wine style and blend that we thought would deliberately be approachable – sooner – to an audience that loves ripe, bright fruit, but not necessarily the tannin and dense structure of a Cab Sauvignon led blend (that requires palate fortitude or cellaring). We wanted round fruit character, soft tannins and a voluptuous texture that would reinforce our “The Closer” brand proposition. Did we fall victim to “the brand”, allowing the strategy to dictate the blend, or do we need to further fine tune our palates and drink more? (um, yes)

Theories abound, but at the end of the day, the exercise was instructive, fun and a great way to understand the challenges winemakers face in blending harmonious, balanced wine.

Thanks Rodney Strong for letting me dream! Cheers to Symmetry!

Feature Image: Photo Credit Rodney Strong Vineyards





2 Comments Add yours

  1. Great column. Fun, informative and with an edge of suspense. I always learn something from this blog. Well done.


  2. Fun read! The WBC post-con excursion to Livermore included a visit to the Wente Winemakers Studio where we got to try our hand at blending. Coming up with a balanced blend is certainly a challenge!


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