The art of blending varietals, clonal selections, vineyards and even specific blocks within a single vineyard has been well known and universally practiced for millennia. It’s only recently that the advent of varietal bottling and labeling have become a common practice in the U.S., much of the New World and some select areas of the Old World.
Wine-producing countries such as Portugal, Italy and most parts of France focus on blended wines that are labeled by their place of origin (i.e. Pauillac, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Douro, Barolo) with no reference to the varietal composition of the wine.
While varietal labeling (i.e. Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Chardonnay) has existed to some extent for many years, it was not until the 1940s and 1950s in California that it became more of the norm and helped drive the sale of wines to the American public. But even during that time, and still today, many domestic producers continued to depend on blended bottlings with somewhat deceptive labeling to market their wines.
“Bordeaux” did not necessarily contain Cabernet, “Chablis” did not rely on Chardonnay, and who ever knew what was in that bottle labeled “Chianti”? Certainly not Sangiovese.
So, how do we distinguish between what is commonly referred to as a “blend” and what is called a “field blend?”
When most people consider blended wines they think of the winemaking art of blending different lots of wine that are grown, harvested, vinified and aged separately. The blending process then occurs after fermentation and before bottling to the winemaker’s desired style. However, when the term “field blend” is correctly applied, it refers to a diverse sampling of multiple varietals inter-planted in the vineyard, harvested together, co-fermented and bottled without varietal designation.
The varietal composition of an inter-planted vineyard may number from just a few to well into the dozens and can consist of reds and whites all at different stages of ripening, contributing individual characteristics and some adapting to specific vintage conditions better than others. When grown and harvested together, they create a total impression that far surpasses the sum of the individual parts while expressing the vineyard’s personality.
Many growers and vintners have long believed that within such a vineyard, the different varietals condition themselves over time, creating a mutual environment benefiting all rather than a self-survival mode of each.
The old methods of field blending are now once again gaining importance and market strength. When Italian families migrated to California in the mid-19th century, they planted vineyards just like their ancestors in Italy. Field blends were the norm that continued to a great extent later in the century after phylloxera and until Prohibition.
Joel Peterson, founder of Ravenswood and winemaker through much of its history, focused on “Heritage Vineyards,” many dating 100 years or more with a mix of inter-planted varietals. Today, Peterson returns to his “maverick” style with the introduction of his new brand, Once & Future, and his ownership/stewardship of the highly acclaimed Bedrock vineyard boasting a staggering number of varietals.
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Tracing the history of field blends in California, Peterson points to the mid 19th century when horticulturists from the east began exporting Zinfandel and other varietals to the West Coast. In the 1880s, influential viticulturist Charles Wetmore strongly advocated for “co-planting and co-fermentation,” which became generally adopted.
The maverick in Peterson believes, “a winemaker’s choice to vinify separately and blend after fermentation can be viewed as an expression of control. While relying on a co-fermented field blend is more an organic expression of the vineyard.”
Eugénio Jardim is the U.S. ambassador for Wines of Portugal and a recognized expert in the countless intricacies of the country’s most complex winemaking history. Blending has always been the guide word when speaking of Portugal with very few wines (only recently) carrying a varietal label.
Jardim may be simplifying things a bit when he theorizes that, “perhaps in centuries past, people just didn’t know better.” But he also suggests, “The old is new again! I find it amusing how trendy ‘field blends’ have become of late when, traditionally, the world’s oldest vineyards were inter-planted.”
In Portugal, the concept of a field blend has been elevated from its historic character to the exceptional and unique official category of Vinhas Velhas that is gaining worldwide acclaim. Here, there must be at least 40 distinct varietals inter-planted in the vineyard and vine age must exceed 45 years, although many have been shown closer to 80 years with some up to 100. Renowned Douro winemaker Francisca van Zeller has characterized these as “Chaos Vineyards” while praising the potential majesty of the resulting wines.
Although the range of varietals found in the mountainous Priorat region of northeastern Spain is not nearly as great as other parts of Europe, the concept of field blending has historical significance. Yuri Mestres is the manager of Guest and Trade Relations at Scala Dei that relies to some extent on field blends even though the current trend is more towards varietal planting. Mestres is careful to point out, “In Priorat, mixed planting of vineyards dates back centuries but we’re not sure whether this was a conscious choice or happened by chance. However, on the traditional slopes it is still common to find them.”
For some additional local perspective, I spoke with Ridge Vineyards chief operating officer and Montebello winemaker Eric Baugher, who succeeded, and was mentored by, the iconic Paul Draper (an outspoken disciple of the vineyard being more important than a specific varietal). Two of Ridge’s most prominent field blends, Lytton Springs and Geyserville, both located in Sonoma County, no longer carry a varietal label.
In the 1890s, the Old Patch vineyard in Geyserville was replanted as Baugher explained, “with bundles of sticks that were pre-mixed in no particular order.” In addition to the popular varietals of the day (Zinfandel, Carignan, Alicante Bouschet, etc.), Ridge has also identified several whites and ancient Bordeaux varietals. Baugher’s overall observation and experience with field blend is quite simple: “There seems to exist an alchemy of sorts when field blends are co-fermented that does not appear to exist with post-fermentation blends.”
This does not diminish the greatness that can be found with post-fermentation blending but rather points to the benefits that begin with the age-old tradition of an inter-planted vineyard.
There’s no question that field blends add a different expression to the finished wine and are now largely found in old-vine vineyards. Joel Peterson went on to say with a smile, “You can usually judge the age of a vineyard by how mixed up it is.” And that’s not necessarily a bad thing!