Mix it up: Exploring field blends

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Drinks: Wines

Field blends are on the way back, exciting winemakers and sommeliers the world over in the process. Margaret Rand finds out whether vines that grow together go together


Now here’s a thought. There are wines that are a cult among winemakers, and that sommeliers love, but that 99% of customers have never heard of.

If that sounds like a riddle from a pub quiz, let me give you the answer. They are field blends. Wines made from field blends – mixed vines grown together, picked together and fermented together – have winemakers bursting with opinions and passion but customers are completely unaware as to why such a thing could matter. And yet, when they taste the wines, they love them too.

This bottleneck of information on field blends, with nothing getting through to consumers, makes a curious comparison with natural wines, where consumers seem to lap up information. Of course, natural wines can taste so wacky that explanation is necessary – and the natural wine story is anyway a natural for consumers already tuned into organics and ‘clean eating’.

But field blends are different – how vines are planted and picked is not the subject of many dinner-table conversations. ‘I’d be flattering my customers if I thought they bought them for this reason, or knew what it meant,’ David Eyre, Eyre Bros head chef, says.

Does this matter? Ronan Sayburn, 67 Pall Mall master sommelier, says: ‘Customers don’t know what they are, but that’s not the point. If you’re selling a bottle it’s something you’d explain afterwards. And people do like something different.’

The point, for Sayburn, is the harmony of these wines. ‘Coyam, from Emiliana, is very Chilean. Eben Sadie’s Voetpad has that South African smokiness. You feel they come from a harmonious environment.’

James Payne, restaurant manager at Fonab Castle Hotel in Perthshire, points to ‘the texture and wholeness of the end result’. But where does this harmony come from? Unsurprisingly, opinions differ, so let’s start by looking in the vineyard.

Understanding vines
Field blends are usually, though not always, plots of old vines, survivors of an earlier era. It would be easy to think that the mix of vines was random, and sometimes clearly it was, but when Will Thomas, viticulturist for Ridge Vineyards’ California sites, mapped three plots at Lytton Springs he discovered the opposite.

The vines were planted in 1901, and a typical mix for the time and place would be Zinfandel plus Carignan, Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouschet, Mourvèdre, Grand Noir and others, not all of which have, at Ridge, been identified. Every fourth vine in every fourth row is a teinturier variety (a grape grown to add colour rather than flavour), usually Grand Noir. ‘They wanted to make sure they got that colour,’ David Amadia Ridge’s president, says.

Head winemaker of Fonseca, David Guimaraens, goes further. He believes that the position of each vine in his narrow, convoluted old Douro terraces was specifically chosen, even though, as with the Lytton Springs plots, that intention was blurred by later replacements.

‘There was an intention to plant particular vines in particular spots, but over time it has become more random,’ he says. ‘The British school was fewer varieties and a reason for mixing (and often Alicante Bouschet, which they brought in to replace elderberry); the Portuguese school was lots of varieties.’

Generally, he says, ‘three or four varieties make up 60 to 80%: Roriz, Touriga Francesa, Barocca and Amarela; it varies according to the region and the orientation. Then there are another five to 10 in smaller proportions.’

Over in Vienna, where Gemischter Satz is wildly fashionable, and even being planted afresh, the choice of vines tended to reflect the soil. The chalky Nüssberg vineyard tends to be Pinot varieties, perhaps with some Muskateller, Traminer and Riesling. The sandy loess of Bisamberg has, to take the example of grower Rainer Christ, Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, Neuburger, Weissburgunder, Traminer, Roter Veltliner, Welschriesling, Müller-Thurgau, Sauvignon Blanc and a few unknowns. There can be 20 varieties in old Viennese vineyards, planted to ensure that the family’s Heurige had a reliable supply of wine each year whatever frost or disease hit the vineyards.

Mixing & ripening
José Lourenço of Quinta dos Roques in Dão says, ‘Only in 2000, in Portugal, was it mandatory to identify varieties in the vineyard. Until then, when you planted you just ordered vines and planted them. My grandfather ordered X% of Jaen, X% of Touriga, and so on, and just planted them in any order. This was how it was done in Dão and Douro because parcels were very small, and people didn’t want to put all of their efforts into one variety. It was definitely frost insurance.’

The modern objection, that vines ripen at different times, and that picking a mixed vineyard all together risks green flavours, was not considered a problem until fairly recently. Even 30 years ago it was common for growers, though particularly in the case of white grapes, deliberately to pick some grapes at perfect ripeness, some at slight overripeness and some at slight underripeness for the complexity it gave the final wine. The idea that everything has to be at perfect ripeness is quite new.

Some advocates of field blends maintain that a mix of vines, planted together, flower and ripen closer together than they otherwise would. Others disagree. Marcel Deiss, the mixed-vine rebel of Alsace, holds firmly to the view that his mixed vines in Altenberg de Bergheim all ripen together and all flower together.

His is an extreme view, but Lourenço says that from his observation: ‘Budburst and maturation are closer in mixed vineyards. Touriga and Jaen are normally two weeks apart. In a mixed vineyard they can be less than a week apart.’ Others say they have seen no evidence of this, and at the moment there seems to be no known mechanism by which it could happen.

Whatever the truth of that question, it seems to be what happens in the fermentation vat that makes the difference. In Vienna, Fritz Wieninger’s father, Franz, was an early advocate of Gemischter Satz at a time when it seemed about to die out. When Fritz took over in 1999 he was ready to let it die.

But he gave it a chance, marked each variety in the vineyard, picked and fermented some separately and made the rest as Gemischter Satz. ‘The Welschriesling wasn’t bad, Grüner Veltliner was very good, Pinot Blanc was great, quite Alsace. Then I tasted the Gemischter Satz, expecting nothing, and I was overwhelmed. It was pure terroir,’ he says.

Whether it’s terroir we’re tasting in field blends is a matter of opinion – in the end, we don’t know what terroir tastes like. All we know is that differences of terroir give different flavours, and so do different climates.

Mark Quick, wine manager of Hawksmoor, says that customers can be instinctively suspicious of wine that tastes the same vintage after vintage. ‘If they buy Ridge Geyserville they know they can trust it, but they also know that it will be slightly different each year, that it will be a real expression of the vintage that year, and that’s why they buy it. In Manchester we also have Luigi Bosca’s Finca los Nobles from Argentina, which is also popular,’ he adds.

The relevant point here is that field blends don’t actually taste of any particular variety or any particular fruit – they taste of wine. And blending the same varieties after fermentation simply does not have the same result.

Voetpad winemaker Eben Sadie says, ‘The first vintage we fermented the five grapes apart, but the following year we co-fermented them, and the result was just much more complex, and as a whole the wine was in greater equilibrium. Voetpad is our old-vine parcel with the biggest number of co-planted grapes, but paradoxically it is always the first wine to gain all-round equilibrium.’

From flavour to colour
Presumably this is down partly to the different mix of flavour precursors in the fermentation vat. As far as I know nobody has done any research to discover what else might be going on, though we know that co-fermenting, say, Viognier with Syrah helps to fix the colour, which would seem counter-intuitive. (Remember the much-derided old recipe for Chianti, which included a percentage of white grapes?)

But whatever the reason, the result is how wine ought to taste – even if not being able to use easy descriptors like peach or strawberry makes writing a
wine list more difficult.

It’s because these field blends taste so much more like wine than other wines that for consumers, no explanation is actually necessary. There are no strange flavours to prepare for; no jarring notes. So as Sayburn says, it really doesn’t matter if consumers are unfamiliar with the story of viticulture over the last 50 years; they like what’s in the glass.

As John Keats would certainly have said, had anyone put the matter to him, ‘That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’


Six to try
Some top field blends to get you started…

Domaine St Croix, La Serre 2016, Corbières, Languedoc-Roussillon, France – James Payne, Fonab Castle Hotel
‘Mouthfilling, rich white with a distinct citrus-pith core, and hints of scrumpy cider on the nose. Our customers love the funkiness of this: some pick up cider on the nose and others pick up Pinot Noir, which is impossible to justify objectively. We put it with sous-vide cured salmon with textures of cucumber.’
£12.50, De Burgh Fine Wines, 01875 595 100

Emiliana, Coyam 2013, Colchagua, Chile – Ronan Sayburn, 67 Pall Mall
‘This has the really intense blackcurrant cassis aroma you expect from Chile, but it’s not jammy. There’s a whiff of menthol/spearmint and delicious ripe blackcurrant fruit, with good acidity, good tannin and good balance. I’d serve it with really charred lamb, almost burnt on the outside, with redcurrant jelly on the side.’
£13.52, Boutinot, 0161 908 1300

Fritz Wieninger, Gemischter Satz Nussberg 2015, Vienna, Austria – Margaret Rand, wine writer
‘Nine varieties are used in this white field blend that’s full of layered flavours of
citrus, spice, herbs and a touch of tropical fruit, which are all knit together in perfect harmony; winey, very complex and very long.’
£17.63, Liberty Wines, 020 7720 5350

Larry Cherubino, Laissez Faire Field Blend 2016, Frankland River, Western Australia – Julie Sheppard, Imbibe
‘This Aussie homage to Alsatian field blends features Pinot Grigio, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc and Sauvignon Gris – and it’s a great food wine. An intriguing herbal nose, with vegetal-tinged peach and apple aromas, leads to a fresh, mineral-style palate, with crisp acidity, crunchy apple fruit and floral notes on the finish.’
£18.99, Hallgarten Druitt & Novum Wines, 01582 722538

Ridge, Geyserville 2015, Alexander Valley, California, US – Mark Quick, Hawksmoor
‘We match wines with steak, because that’s what we do. The main thing is the fat content and we put more powerful wines with fattier cuts. I’d put Geyserville with ribeye or prime rib. The sauce is key, too; this goes with peppercorn sauce. I find some chocolate notes in the wine, a raw chocolate note, with a spicy backbone.
It’s juicy and serious at the same time, both taut and welcoming.’
£26.50, Fields, Morris & Verdin, 020 7819 0360

Quinta dos Roques Reserva 2013, Dão, Portugal – Margaret Rand, wine writer
‘A field blend of Touriga Nacional, Jaen and Alfrocheiro. It doesn’t feel as tannic as the estate’s other reds, and it’s got a silky palate, with dark, winey fruit; tight but perfectly at ease with itself.’
£17, Raymond Reynolds, 01663 742 230

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