I I don’t often get my science on. But take me down to the wine cellar and present me with glasses and beakers, and I can channel my inner winemaker.
I’ve travelled down to the Naramata Bench and wound my way up the steep slope towards Laughing Stock Vineyards. Don’t be misled by the name; this is a house of premium vintages. I head to the cellar to meet winemaker Sandy Leier and delve deeply into the art of blending wine.
The Bordeaux-inspired blends are among the most sought-after red wines in the world. We cherish the deep dark colour in the wine glass, look in awe at the length of the wine’s legs, and anticipate the pull of the strong tannins. Many are familiar with the popular red wines of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Merlot, all noble red Bordeaux varieties.
These red grapes and the lesser-known Carménère and Petit Verdot make up the grand French lineup. Each equally impressive on their own, the sum is greater than its parts.
In North America, a blend of two or more of these grapes is known as Meritage, a mashup of the words “merit” and “heritage.”
A long table has been set in the middle of the cellar, each station complete with five glasses, beakers, droppers and a scorecard.
One by one, Leier guides us through a tasting of the unique flavours of Bordeaux varietal wines, encouraging us to intimately assess their qualities: the colour, the unique aromas, the flavour. These will be our starting point to recreate (in our own fashion) Laughing Stock’s flagship wine, a big Bordeaux red blend named Portfolio.
Currently selling their Portfolio 2020 ($53), Leier’s master blend of the five classic varietals: 43% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Cabernet Franc, 3% Malbec and 3% Petit Verdot combined to create a multilayered, complex wine. The blend aged for 20 months in French oak barrels, 40% new and 60% older, before being bottled. The deep garnet colour in the glass offers pepper and berry notes, while the wine boasts a smooth profile with notes of dark fruit and cassis. It’s tasting mighty fine now, but it can certainly be cellared and brought out over the next decade.
Leier leads the blending seminar (a small, intimate affair of 30 people), giving us a behind-the-scenes look at the reasons for her formula in the flagship blend.
Five dark bottles are set out; a single sticky label indicates that it may be “Merlot” or “Cabernet Franc” we’re about to explore.
“We’re going to taste and see the different components of each of these different wines —quality level, colour, acidity—all of these things come into play when you’re making a blend,” she says.
As we make copious notes, each wine shines in uniqueness. Leier believes that much of this unique character is derived from the terroir. The expansive range of microclimates from north to south gives Okanagan viticulturalists the privilege of cultivating diverse grape varieties, each thriving best in its chosen locale. The growing season and the intrinsic characteristics of the vineyard—including the soil, slope, sun exposure, and orientation—all contribute to the grape quality.
“If we don’t get good grapes, the winemakers are pretty helpless,” says Leir. “So, we’re out there checking the vines, especially as the grapes are ripening, tasting them every week. As we get closer to the ideal sugar levels, we’re looking to see if those flavours are where we want them to be, or if we want them to hang just a little bit longer to get a little bit more of the characteristics flavour.”
The blending process begins, and we’re encouraged to find the perfect combination to create the best wine. I take my dropper and add a small percentage of Petit Verdot into my Cabernet-Merlot dominant blend, adding structure, tannins, and a lot of depth of colour. Then, a few drops of the fruity Malbec round it out.
The change is overwhelming. Blended together, the individual wines have transformed in flavour, structure and quality. I turn back to my beakers, check my first-ever wine blend formula, and make my own wine. I proudly sign my label and head home, bottle in hand.