Page 1 of 3
An unconventional perspective on the Wine Class
An Interview with the Proprietor of Sideways Wine Club
"This is your big joke-teller, your hit at the party, the guy that everybody wants to be around — at least for five or ten minutes until they find out that all the jokes are the same." It was a backhanded compliment, to say the least. But no offense was taken, because Dave Chambers wasn't talking about a wine industry colleague or a wine class attendee. He wasn't referring to anybody at all. Instead, he was personifying the grape Grenache as a way to describe its role in France's Southern Rhône-style blends, in contrast to the often "spicy and complex" Syrah or the "deep and brooding" Mourvedre. I couldn't help but smile at what was but one of many analogies he used to demystify the subject of his wine class that evening: The Blender's Art.
Now in his third month of teaching the series he calls Third Tuesday, wine merchant Dave Chambers, in keeping with his disarming personality, takes a casual and conversational approach to his classes. More narrative than didactic, he shares stories to explain an otherwise dizzying array of grape varietals and wine styles, often attributing personalities to them as a way of helping his students easily understand it all. But he's also very hands-on — after all, the class is about wine, and what's wine without tasting? Taking his students on a guided tasting tour of the wines for the evening, he seamlessly joins practice with principle in a way that induces some serious learning but seduces with serious fun.
In this month's wine class, true to its name, Dave focused on the art of blending. Blended wines garner somewhat of a bad rap among many producers of super-premium domestic wine. But any claim that they're intrinsically inferior, simply by virtue of being comprised of more than one varietal, is suggestive of a limited understanding of the larger wine realm. In fact, for a number of Old World regions — many of which produce some of the most exalted wines — blending is pivotal to their style and identity. And while in some areas blending is done in part to compensate for climates that seldom lend the same degree of ripening as in most New World regions, there's a strong argument that, when done skillfully, it makes for wines of unparalleled balance, complexity, and depth.
After giving a respectful nod to some of these regions, such as Bordeaux and Champagne, Dave turned his focus onto the Rhône as a model to illustrate the power and significance that blending different — but complementary — varietals has on a finished wine. He began with a brief introduction to some of the major characters, and the unique qualities they each bring to the performance of a Rhône blend:
- Syrah, for its peppery and smokey style, and flavors of dark berry, leather, and meat (depending on region); giving color, tannin, and weight (alcohol).
- Grenache, for its flavors of red berry, licorice and menthol (in cases of less ripening); lending tannin, acidity, and aromatics.
- Mourvèdre, for its flavors of earth, game meat, graphite, and white pepper; giving tannin and weight (alcohol).
- Carignan, for its spicy style and flavors of plum and cherry; lending generous acidity, along with color and tannin.
- Viognier, for its floral aroma, peppery style, and flavors of apricot and peach; giving weight (alcohol) and aromatics to Northern Rhône Syrah
To put a practical spin on the discussion, he acquainted the group with samples of wines from each of the major varietals, selected from various California producers. Tasting them side-by-side cast the differences in their flavor profiles in sharp relief, allowing for a keener understanding of the roles that each of the grapes plays in a blend. But the real fun began once we were given carte blanche to combine quantities of the varietal wines to create our own proprietary combinations. Suddenly 'the blender's art' came alive with meaning. After beginning my first blend with too much Grenache, making it mundanely round and fruity, a spike of Syrah transformed it into an elixir with real focus and verve. When I created another concoction that started out too heavy and glum from a heavy-handed pour of Mourvèdre, adding a splash of Carignan brightened and lifted it right out of my glass… and into mouth, wouldn't you know it, time and time again.