Most blended wines today are made from grapes grown in variety-specific sites. The grapes are harvested and fermented separately, then combined to make a final wine. But not all blends are produced this way.
Before there were varietal bottlings and modern cuvée blends, there were humble field blends. This ancient approach to winemaking was once the norm. Though less common today, the tradition lives on in certain wine regions. Let’s look at the history, and future, of field blends.
What are field blends, and how are they made?
Field blends are made from a mélange of different grapes grown together in the same field or vineyard, then picked and fermented at the same time. These unique wines are different than the typical blends we know today, like those of Bordeaux, where grapes are grown and vinified separately.
For centuries, grape varieties grew side-by-side in a vineyard. Old World winemakers planted some for ripeness, some for acidity and others for color. It was done to ensure an entire year’s harvest wouldn’t be lost if environmental conditions affected one or more of the grape varieties. It was a way to maintain consistent quality long before technological advances made it easier to do so.
At harvest, the interplanted grapes are picked and co-fermented together. The flavor profile of field blends vary depending on the grapes they contain, but they’re prized for a level of balance, harmony and complexity.
For the many winemakers who love to make them, field blends are a distinct and expressive way to showcase a vineyard’s terroir and honor tradition.
Regions that make field blends
The mother of all field blends, Wiener Gemischter Satz is the traditional wine of Vienna frequently found in one of the city’s heuriger, or wine taverns. It even has its own Districtus Austriae Controllatus (DAC), Austria’s classification for wine. A Gemischter Satz must be a blend of at least three white varieties, planted together in one Viennese vineyard.
Gemischter Satz producers like Weingut Wieninger, Weingut Zahel and Weingut Mayer am Pfarrplatz have a plethora of grapes from which to choose. Some of the varieties include Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, Chardonnay, Weissburgunder, Welschriesling, Neuburger, Müller-Thurgau, Sauvignon Blanc, Traminer and Gelber Muscateller. No single variety can make up more than 50% of the blend, and the third-largest portion must be at least 10%.
Alsace once had a rich history of field blends, but as the region began to favor single-vineyard varietal bottlings, they fell out of fashion. It’s a shame, because Alsace’s field blends brought the region fame and fortune from the Middle Ages until the end of the 19th century.
The original practice for the region’s edelzwicker, or noble blending, was to make it using field blends. Now, however, separate vinification is more common. Though they’re harder to find today, winemakers like Domaine Marcel Deiss and Domaine Schoech still craft field blends of Pinot Gris, Muscat, Pinot Blanc, Sylvaner, Gewürztraminer and/or Riesling the traditional way.
Douro Valley, Portugal
Field blends are a notable element of Port’s history. With more than 90 varieties permitted, the Douro Valley is a place where the ancient tradition can thrive. In the past, vineyards in the area were planted with a mix of red and white indigenous grape varieties. The practice was so widespread that growers weren’t always sure which ones they had.
Many of the newly planted vineyards in the Douro Valley contain a single variety, but interplanted vineyards still exist. One example is Quinta do Portal, where a historic field blend of as many as 29 grape varieties are grown and harvested together to produce an old-style bottling of Port. Some of these field blends end up in wines beyond Port. Wineries like Niepoort also use them to make dry, red table wines, often from old vines full of character and complexity.
Napa and Sonoma are home to a number of heritage field-blend vineyards that date to the late 19th century. Most are planted with red varieties, predominantly fruit-forward Zinfandel or Alicante Bouschet, Petite Sirah for tannins and Carignan for brightness and acidity. These grapes were used to make a classic California field blend that sometimes went by the name of “mixed blacks.”
There are a limited number of California field blends planted with white grapes. One noteworthy example is the Compagni-Portis vineyard in Sonoma Valley. Planted in 1954 with Gewürztraminer, Trousseau Gris, Riesling, Roter Veltliner and other varieties, it offers a glimpse into a time before Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc ruled the area.
It’s always exciting to see a New World region embrace an Old World winemaking tradition. Emerging regions in Australia have discovered the beauty of field blends. Unlike Europe, there are minimal appellation rules there that dictate which grapes can be planted or how many varieties can be blended together.
Innovative winemakers like Domaine Simha and Sinapius in Tasmania, and Massena in the Barossa Valley are creating a new wave of lively field blends from white grapes like Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Blanc and Viognier. Some of these also fall into the country’s growing category of natural wines.