Chardonnay may still be rocking the national bestseller lists, but here in the Bay Area we've evolved more sophisticated tastes. Wines known as "kitchen sink blends" are hot now around town, and a good way to discover and enjoy new grapes without having to commit to an entire glass of an unknown varietal. Kitchen sink wines — so named because they can contain any number of varietals, as opposed to the more staid traditional blends — often provide insight into the creative leanings of a specific winemaker, and the wine's layers of flavor add a new dimension to the tasting experience. The best part? Unlike glasses of unusual or hard-to-find varietals, these blended wines don't cost a fortune.
One fan is Sarah Knoefler, wine director for the Claude Lane restaurants, including Gitane (6 Claude Lane, 788-6686, gitanerestaurant.com), which has both red and white blends from Portugal and Spain on the menu. "We have many blended wines not only because they are traditional in the countries that we represent, but also because blended wines offer more complexity since the varietals play off of each other," she says. "Different varietals will add more spice, more tannins, or more fruit."
So, a lighter red like Gamay blended with a heavier one like Grenache will add more dimension and tannins to round out the fruit, creating a more accessible flavor profile than one varietal might on its own. This is a great use for red wines like Syrah, which has not performed well with customers, according to wine educator Deborah Parker Wong. "People are confused by Syrah and get snooty about it — they don't think it is a wine that they can relate to," she says. In a blend, the Syrah can instead be a part of the winemaker's overall equation of ingredients, rather than have the starring role.
Downtown at Bluestem Brasserie (1 Yerba Buena Ln., 547-1111 bluestembrasserie.com), owner Adam Jed enjoys his restaurant's Rousanne/Viognier and Grenache kitchen sink blends because they illustrate a winemaker's skill and personality. "[Blended wines] encourage a winemaker to reach into the depths of their tastes, smells, and knowledge of particular vintages to masterfully create a feeling and taste," he says. "Each winemaker takes a different approach to blending and creating their own 'signature,' so to speak."
The personal touch is also evident in the blends of Robert Perkins, owner and winemaker at Skylark Winery, who makes a red blend for Slow Club (2501 Mariposa St., 241-9390, slowclub.com). According to the restaurant's owner, Erin Rooney, Perkins' blend Red Belly is a "wonderful" mix of Grenache, Carignane and Syrah. "Robert really gets the craft of blending food-friendly wines with enough tannin and acid to hold up to rich dishes like chef Matt Paul's cassoulet, which we feature in the early spring," she says. Parker also brings some insider knowledge to his kitchen sink blend through his work as a sommelier at Boulevard.
In addition to rounding out flavors and telling us something about the winemaker, kitchen sink blends can also let customers experience something from another part of the globe that they might not have the access (or adventurous palate) to try on their own. At the The Hidden Vine in the Financial District (408 Merchant St., 674-3567 thehiddenvine.com), one tasting flight showcases red blends from Slovenia, Portugal, and Argentina. In the voluptuous whites section, look for a flight of Rousanne/Viognier, Viura/Malvasia, and a Grenache blend that offers stonefruit, honeysuckle, and peach flavors. Its pleasing floral elements and flavors are subtly perfumey without overwhelming the palate, which means the drinker gets to experience wine more nuanced than a single varietal.
At A16 (2355 Chestnut St., 771-2216, a16sf.com), wine director Shelley Lindgren carries blended Italian wines, a regional tradition that she says is still the case for whites in Lazio, near Rome. The Italian restaurant has obscure blends like the Coenobium, made by Cisterci nuns with the help of winemaker Giampiero Bea. It's a mix of Trebbiano, Malvasia del Lazio, Verdicchio, and Grechetto — not grapes that most of us get to try every day. Together they have an acidity, salinity, and richness, and "an ability to shine with antipasti to braised meats," says Lingren.
And that may be the best reason to try blended wines. Good wine goes hand in hand with good food, and blends can bring more nuance to the meal. "Blends are great because they offer versatility not only with the variety that can be on a table such as antipasti, burrata, and salumi, but they also can add complexity for dishes like a squid ink pasta with fresh calamari, lemon, and herbs or octopus sugo, depending on the blend being white or red," says Lingren.
Overall, blends are just one more way to get excited about wine, both New and Old World. "Many of the greatest and oldest wines in the world have been blends based on soil and terroir," says Gitane's Knoefler. "It's great that the trend towards more traditional-style wines is making people excited right now and people see that potential of great wine."