Solving a math problem. Painting a picture. Cooking a fabulous meal.
Michigan winemakers have many colorful metaphors for the theory behind blending grapes, but one thing’s for certain: They’re enthusiastic about blends and what they contribute to their wine portfolios.
“We have a saying we often use on tours and in the tasting room: better wine through blending,” says Brian Lesperance, vice president at Fenn Valley Vineyards in Fennville. “That’s not to say single-variety ones aren’t great — they are. But there is so much flexibility and, hence, potential when you put different grapes together.”
Marrying particular grapes tends to enhance the appealing qualities of each and deepens complexity. “In general, you are going for a final product where the sum is greater than the parts, so to speak,” Lesperance explains.
Coenraad Stassen, director of winemaking and estate manager at Brys Estate Vineyard & Winery on the Old Mission Peninsula, agrees: “For me, it’s all about creating layers of flavor in the bottle. Some wines will showcase better acidity, some more mineralogy, others more fruit. I love it when a wine keeps changing and revealing different nuances throughout the enjoyment of a glass. It is like peeling back layers.”
Another advantage is blends’ ability to deliver a particular flavor profile regardless of what Mother Nature serves up in the vineyard, Lesperance says.
“The blend itself will change each year, based on the growing season, with the goal being a fairly consistent final product,” he explains. “While a single-variety wine is capable of delivering a phenomenal wine in any given year, the blends seem to perform more consistently over the long haul.”
Blends are also an opportunity for winemakers to showcase their creativity. Stassen likens the process to a chef preparing a dish, or an artist combining paints on a palette.
“Think of blending as creating a new color when you paint,” he says. “If nobody ever put blue and yellow together, we might have never found green.”
Stassen says his blends at Brys Estate were more experimental early on. Now, as the vineyards have matured, he’s dialed them in to become more consistent. The winery’s portfolio includes Riesling/Gris, a 50/50 Riesling and Pinot Gris blend; Signature rosé, a dry rosé made with Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, and Merlot; a sweeter Pinot Noir/Riesling; a Cab/Merlot that can include either Cabernet Franc or Cabernet Sauvignon, depending on the vintage; and Signature red, a Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Pinot Noir blend.
Lesperance says it’s “no accident a lot of the classic wine regions in the world have built their reputations more on wine styles versus individual grapes,” and many Michigan blends have derived inspiration from Old World counterparts.
Blends containing traditional Bordeaux grapes, such as Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot, are popular across Michigan. Fenn Valley has one — its Meritage (rhymes with “heritage”), a combination of Cab Franc, Cab Sauv, and Merlot — as does Verterra Winery on the Leelanau Peninsula, where co-owner Paul Hamelin credits “the great Bordeaux success found in Saint-Émilion” for the drive behind his Merlot/Cab Franc Reserve red.
Likewise, Wally Maurer says “tradition, tradition, tradition” fueled his blends at Domaine Berrien Cellars in Berrien Springs. Maurer, one of the owners and winemakers, looked to the winemaking traditions of the Rhône Valley and Bordeaux in crafting his blends — including a Bordeaux-style red called Crown of Cab and a dry 80/20 Marsanne/Roussanne — because “Old World winemakers have been making these blends for generations.”
“A blend should always be better than its parts alone,” Maurer says, echoing Lesperance. “Customers have an expectation of something unique and creative when they see a blend. This is one area where the winemaker can have an impact on the finished product.”
This article originally appeared in the 2023 Michigan Wine Country magazine.