LONDON: It's one of the wine world's most threadbare cliches, right up there with "gravity flow winery", "perfect with cheese and red meat" and "we picked before the rains".
If I had 1,000 pounds for every time someone told me "our wine is made in the vineyard" I'd be richer than Roman Abramovich.
It's undeniably true that to make good wine you need to start with decent raw materials. Unless a winemaker resorts to duggery of the skull (flavorants, fruit juice or cross-border blending), the grapes used will more or less determine the quality of the liquid he puts in the bottle. That may be why certain Californian winemakers have started calling themselves "winegrowers".
Actually, this isn't as pretentious as it sounds. While it's possible to take good grapes and stuff them up in the winery, winemakers are not alchemists. No one can turn, say, over-cropped Ugni Blanc into liquid gold. The days when New World winemakers argued that "soil is dirt" and that dull grapes could be "corrected" are long gone.
But have we moved too far in the other direction? Has reverence for what the French call "terroir" (a sense of place is the closest translation) obscured the role of the winemaker?
I'm not talking about the choice of yeasts, barrels or the length of time a winemaker leaves a red wine on its skins here, however great an influence they may have. For me, what distinguishes great winemakers is blending ability.
If anything is an art in the wine world, this is it. Skillful winemakers are like top chefs in this way, combining ingredients to sublime effect.
"Each year is totally different," Nicolas Audebert of leading Argentinean property, Cheval des Andes, told me recently. "There is no recipe here. We take Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec as our starting point, but the proportions vary considerably from year to year, and we also have the possibility to use small amounts of Petit Verdot and Merlot, too."
If parts of the mix sound familiar, that's because these are Bordeaux varieties. In fact, combining different grapes is principally a French art. Think of Champagne, Bordeaux and the southern Rhone (especially the appellation of Chateauneuf du Pape).
You could make a case for Chianti Classico, Port and Rioja, not to mention the best Aussie Cabernet/Shirazes and various Bordeaux-style combos from Chile, Argentina, Italy and South Africa. But most of the leading blended wines come from France.
It's partly a question of dealing with marginal climates but it's also the belief that, when they are good, blends are more than the sum of their parts.
Our problem is that we live in a varietal world, where unblended grapes such as Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Merlot and Shiraz have become brands in their own right.
It's generally easier to sell a wine with a single grape on the label than a blend. But when they're good, blended wines are infinitely more interesting than varietal wines. Only Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo, Riesling, Chardonnay and arguably Chenin Blanc work brilliantly as stand alone grapes in my view.
Four French blends that I've enjoyed recently are the 2005 Chateau L'Hospitalet Blanc, La Clape, a mealy, exquisitely oaked foursome of Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Rolle and Bourboulenc; the perfumed, silky, red fruits-scented 2003 Domaine Rimbert St Chinian, Mas au Schiste, Languedoc; the fleshy, textured, Merlot-based 2005 Lurton La Chapelle Bordeaux and, if you're looking for a bargain, the easy drinking 2005 Classic Cotes du Rhone, a lovely Grenache Syrah blend. All four were made in the cellar as well as the vineyard.