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Why are great Scotches single malt and great wines blends? Add to ...

THE QUESTION: Would you please explain to the uninitiated why outstanding Scotches are single malts while many outstanding wines (Pomerols and Burgundies excepted) are blends?

THE ANSWER: Your question could be fodder for a great whisky-versus-wine debate.

Single-malt Scotches (and many other fine and expensive whiskies) are the product of one distillery. They're generally expensive, costing roughly $50 to $150 for most brands, including Glenfiddich and Lagavulin. The vast majority of Scotches, such as Johnnie Walker, however, are blends comprised of whiskies from as many as 50 or more small distilleries. The difference is stylistic. Single malts tend to be more robust and idiosyncratic, while blends tend to be smoother. Rounded flavours are best achieved through blending. Yes, you could say that single malts tend to taste more complex, if in a more conspicuous way. But some blended whiskies are just as fine. They just speak with more subtlety and may not exhibit the broad range of flavours, such as intense smokiness, that many single malts do. I've met great Scotch experts who derive as much pleasure from blended whiskies as from single malts - at least for weeknight sipping.

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As for wine, it's true that many of the greatest bottles, notably from Bordeaux, are blended from various grapes, such as cabernet sauvignon with merlot or sauvignon blanc with semillon. And there are many great wines based on a single grape variety that could be called blends, at least in wine parlance, in that the fruit is sourced from far-flung vineyards and mixed together in the cellar after each vineyard component is aged for varying amounts of time in separate barrels. But I'd have to respectfully disagree with the claim that outstanding wines consist of large-scale blends in the image of blended Scotch. There are many more exceptions than Pomerol (merlot) and Burgundy (pinot noir). Think of the great reds of the northern Rhône Valley, such as Côte Rôtie (all syrah), Hermitage (syrah) and Condrieu (viognier). Even in places such as California, many of the most expensive and coveted reds are made entirely from cabernet sauvignon, often from a single locale (such as Screaming Eagle). In Germany, the most prized wines are rieslings from tiny vineyards. Even in Champagne, where the blending of pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier is a high art, one of the most expensive wines is made entirely from chardonnay from a single vineyard, Krug Clos du Mesnil. It costs $650 a bottle. In the end, Scotch and wine have something very much in common: People will always pay a high price for rarity, exclusivity and bragging rights. But ultimately "greatness" is in the nose of the sniffer.



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E-mail your wine and spirits questions to Beppi Crosariol. Look for answers to select questions to appear in the Wine & Spirits newsletter and on The Globe and Mail web site.

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