Some winemakers and wine drinkers believe that the only wines capable of fully showing their terroir are those made from a single grape varietal from a grand cru vineyard. But consider for a moment the beautiful wines made from humble field blends. These wines, and their mélange of grape varieties grown all together in a winemaker’s back plot or in vineyards within Viennese city limits or in a historic California vineyard or on some of the best vineyard lands in Alsace, turn out to be a far cry from humble. In this post, I’ll look at three examples.
What is a field blend, you ask? It’s a wine made from two or more, and sometimes many more, grape varieties that are interplanted on the same parcel of land and then harvested and vinified together. By contrast, most blended wines are made by growing, harvesting, and vinifying the grape varieties separately, then blending them.
What were the original reasons for planting different grape varieties together? Necessity, perhaps? Maybe winemakers simply did not have sufficient equipment to ferment different varieties separately. Another reason could have been to protect against risk in the event of a poor harvest or unfavorable weather and ensure, as much as possible, quality and quantity from year to year.
In a field blend, one grape variety’s ripe lusciousness balances another’s racy acidic character; another variety adds tannic backbone, and another adds color, such that the resulting wines are not too high in alcohol or too lean on fruit. Because all the grapes are picked at the same time, they are at different levels of maturity, ripeness, and acidity. Some are overripe, some are underripe, but the mixing of all the grapes results in complex blends that are greater than the sum of their separate parts—a whole orchestra, if you will. “The results are more in Nature’s hands,” says Austrian winemaker Fritz Wieninger.
One such site where this synergy occurs is the historic Compagni-Portis Vineyard at the western base of Mount Veeder in California’s Sonoma Valley. Part of the original Buena Vista estate of Agoston Haraszthy, an early developer of California’s wine industry, the six-acre field now known as the Compagni-Portis Vineyard (after owners Natalie Compagni and Stephen Portis) was planted in 1954 with a diverse mix of white grapes: Riesling, Burger, Trousseau Gris, Gewürtztraminer, Green Hungarian, and Sylvaner among them. The soil is rich in white volcanic ash, and yields are most often less than one ton per acre.
The vineyard is one of sixty-eight vineyards registered by the Historic Vineyard Society of California and is one of the few mixed-white vineyards remaining. Its vines are dry farmed and organically farmed by Phil Coturri, one of Sonoma Valley’s leading organic viticulturalists and a member of the Coturri winemaking family.
At least six vintners have used grapes from the vineyard: Bedrock Wine Co., Arnot-Roberts, Ravenswood, Carlisle, Bucklin, and Gundlach Bundschu.
Boyhood pals Duncan Arnot Meyers and Nathan Lee Roberts, two of my favorite of the low-alcohol, low-interventionist “New California” winemakers, produce their Arnot-Roberts Old Vine White Field Blend from grapes from this site. Grapes are pressed whole cluster, then fermented with native yeast in stainless steel, and aged in neutral French oak barrels for twelve months. I first tasted this sublime wine in 2011 and love its intense aromatics of orange blossom, ripe pear, and lanolin, its bright acidity, and crisp finish. Absolutely delicious!
Update, April 2014: Observant fans of this beautiful white field blend wine will have noticed that the label on the 2012 bottling does not include the words Compagni-Portis Vineyard, as labels from previous vintages did. Nathan Roberts recently told me the reason for this. He and Duncan Meyers learned last year that the vineyard is divided into three separate parcels that are owned by different families. They had not realized this before, because the Compagni-Portis family was the most active in the vineyard and interactive with Phil Coturri. Because of this divided ownership of the parcels, Arnot-Roberts has stopped using, as of the 2012 bottling, the Compagni-Portis name on the label of the field blend white wine.
The information about this vineyard in the records of the Historic Vineyard Society of California does not yet appear to be updated.
An Urban Field Blend
Vineyards within the city limits of Vienna? Yes! Believe it or not, Vienna has more than 1,700 acres planted to vines. And one of the traditional Viennese wines is Wiener Gemischter Satz (mixed set)—a field blend of white grapes. In 2013, a new Austrian DAC (designation of origin similar to the French AOC) was added: Wiener Gemischter Satz, and the specific geographic region associated with this DAC is the city of Vienna.
By law, a Viennese Gemischter Satz must comprise white grapes only and must include a minimum of three different grape varieties and not more than twenty. The predominant variety must not constitute more than 50 percent of the vineyard. All grapes must be planted, harvested, and vinified together. Typical grapes in a Viennese field blend include Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Gewürtztraminer, and Grauburgunder, among others. Some field blends comprise as many as fifteen different grape varieties.
Fritz Wieninger is an Austrian biodynamic winemaker who has been a stalwart in reviving the traditional Viennese practice of making white wines from field blends. “Especially close to my heart is the Wiener Gemischter Satz,” he says. “This is a Viennese classic that had been nearly forgotten.”
The grapes in this field blend grow in soils of shell limestone and weathered limestone with a high clay content.
I tasted Fritz’s 2012 Wiener Gemischter Satz at a recent seminar with Fritz and his Kamptal winemaking colleague and friend Fred Loimer at Rom Toulon’s 24 Hubert Wines in Tribeca, 24hubert.com. The complex blend of eleven different white grape varieties was fragrant and floral, with vibrant acidity and fruit, pronounced minerality from the limestone soils, low alcohol (12.5 percent), and was delightful in every way. “All of Vienna in one wine,” as Fritz says.
Not all field blends are made from white grape varieties. Some older Zinfandel vineyards in California are referred to as “mixed blacks” because the Zinfandel grapes were coplanted around 1900–1905 with several other varieties, including Petite Syrah, Grenache, Carignan, and Mourvèdre. Ridge Vineyards’ Lytton Springs Vineyard is one example of a “mixed blacks” field of heritage varieties.
And Now to France . . .
Other field blends, like Jean-François Ganevat’s J’en Veux (I want some), combine red and white grapes to make a red wine.
Ganevat’s grapes, a mix of seventeen non-AOC approved varieties indigenous to the Jura region of eastern France, include Petit Béclan, Enfariné, Gueuche, Coreau, Gouais, Argant, Portugais Bleu, and Seyve-Villard. These are some of the “lost” grapes of the Jura, now almost forgotten, that used to be the staple varieties. They are coplanted on a small bit of land behind Ganevat’s house. The vines, on their own rootstock, were planted in 1900. Ganevat’s domaine was certified biodynamic in 2006. His soils are a mix of schist, clay, and marl.
Each year, Ganevat destems the grapes for one of his wines entirely by hand. In 2009, this wine was the J’en Veux. Using scissors, he and his workers cut each berry from the cluster and leave only a trace of the stem still attached to the grape, resulting in intact grapes and no bleeding juice from tugging the grape from its stem. The grapes are then dropped individually into the barrel for a whole-berry fermentation. All grape varieties are cofermented. In 2009 about one hundred cases of J’en Veux were made.
The 2010 J’en Veux that I tasted was complex and pure, with aromas of fresh red fruit, earth, and minerals. Light body, low alcohol, and no added suphur. Bliss in a glass!
Tempest in a Wine Glass
To those who fiercely believe that only a single grape varietal can best express terroir, Alsatian winemaker Jean-Michel Deiss takes the opposite stance. He coplanted his best vineyard sites with white field blends to highlight the site over any particular grape. He calls the resulting wines his vins de terroir. I have yet to taste any of these wines but am certainly eager to.
Personally, I believe that any field-blended wine can express its terroir just as ably as any single-varietal wine.
I am absolutely smitten with field blends and would love to hear about your favorites.
Copyright © 2014 by Carol Hartland