Field Blends: A Fashionable Subject That Can Defy Logic

by Ian D’Agata

“Field blends” is a term commonly used nowadays to refer to wines made from a mixture of grapes picked from vines all grown in the same spot (so, a field blend of vines) and fermented together. These are plots or even entire more or less small vineyards that have been planted to as many as ten to fifteen grape varieties (though there are examples of even more varieties co-existing, such as Port’s Quinta de Portal that has almost thirty different grapes living together). Such vineyards can be planted with quite the hodgepodge of grapes: taking Alsace as an example, grape varieties as different as Pinot Noir, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Sylvaner, different types of Muscat, Auxerrois, Pinot Blanc and others still are made to co-exist in the same vineyard. All over the world, there are vineyards that are so old that both the grower and winemaker have no idea what exactly grows there. A lack of knowledge is a very curious way by which to go about wanting to make the best wine possible, but so it is with field blends.

Nevertheless, at the present time wines made from field blends are so popular in some wine-drinking circles that you couldn’t be blamed for thinking that they are the greatest thing since pre-sliced bread, the hula hoop and the yo-yo. Finding somebody who speaks poorly about them is like looking for the saber-toothed tiger. That is not happening anytime soon because right now field blends are cool, and it’s even cooler to speak well of them. But just like looking for a saber tooth tiger may not prove to be the brightest idea around, the same can be said about the unabashed glorification of field blends and their wines.

There are many reasons why field blends are getting generally good press, and this independently from the fact that there are undoubtedly some very good wines made with them. Wine writers do not want to stick out for their potentially unpopular or contrarian views (and their editors usually want it even less): why say something different from what the herd wants to believe in and risk discomfort and retaliation? And so, epic articles are usually penned citing producers waxing on poetically about the goodness of wines made from field blends, how they bring the romance back into wine, how they constitute a return to our roots, and more of the same train of thought. But very few if any of such generally positive articles ever seem to ask any questions as to why it is that wines made with field blends should be any good. Clearly, that many super-cool and often very talented producers are now championing field blends is a ringing endorsement, so why quibble? After all, wine writers need to taste wines they really can’t afford to buy; they want to keep getting invited to free tastings, dinners and trips; and so forth. Hence, you have a second reason why nobody wants to go against a tide of opinion when writing about the subject at hand. But there are other reasons too. A third occurs in the case of a “something” that is believed to be important enough to merit championing by those with the money to advertise, say a producer association or consorzio: writing something appropriately negative about such wines is the best way to get those entities to stop advertising in the magazine that gave you the go ahead to write the piece in the first place. Last but not least, another reason is that modern society, in an effort to escape the hyper-technological world it has created for itself but that neither it nor humans are built for, continuously looks to “the good old days”, a past filled with halcyon memories of “better times”. Times when things done a certain way were so much better than what is done today. But is it really so? One wonders.

With field blends, the problem is mostly in those first two and the fourth camps. Field blends are cool and so that’s what 90% of the party line amounts to. But at some point, one has to ask himself or herself if the argument that field blends are just swell jives with logic. The first inescapable fact is historical. Field blends did not exist because they gave the best wines. Not at all. They existed in the past because farmers were always hedging their bets against diseases and pests. Quite correctly, it made no sense to them to plant just one grape variety in a field, because said variety might have, for example, either ripened too late in the year or budded too early (hence subject to autumn rains and spring frosts which meant running the risk of losing the entire crop). Or perhaps because the grape variety in question was too sickly; or because it was a miserly producer; or because it hated drought or hated rain; and so forth. Therefore, it was not at all unreasonable to plant a mix of grapes so that at least part of the vineyard would produce a volume of grapes each and every year that one could count on. Furthermore, those farmers were too poor to plant just one variety: this is because nobody, more often than not, had enough of that one variety to plant in the first place. And neither could they buy new vines of that one variety even if they had wished to do so, because they didn’t have the money to do so. In those very poor times centuries ago, farmers did the best they could with what they had, exchanging with their neighbors whatever was in their possession. Nobody had entire fields of Chardonnay or Sangiovese to work with as is the case today, so planting nothing but Chardonnay was never an option.

Today’s wine lovers and writers need to remember that, four hundred to five hundred years ago, wine was being made in commercially important numbers only in Europe, and nowhere else. But Europe in those times was plagued by illiteracy, disease, wars, and poverty, and by the share- cropping system that was in place. Everybody was just trying to eke out a living and didn’t really care quite so much about the quality of the wines they were making, as quantity was what they were after (in the share cropping system, the poor lived on a noble’s land that they took care of, and as payment for doing so were allowed to keep only a small percentage of whatever fruit and vegetables they grew and animals they raised). And so, the name of the game was quantity, not quality, given that the more they produced, the more they got to keep. And wine quality, at least in the sense we think of it today, wouldn’t have been really possible anyways, given the state of the vineyards (more often than not reduced to battlefields year after year because of the perennial wars that ravaged Europe in those sorrier times. After all, they didn’t name them Thirty Years and One Hundred Years Wars for nothing). The level of knowledge (or lack thereof) undoubtedly contributed too to the making of so-so wines. To imply, as is done in modern times, that people back then knew better than today and were into pro-biological, hippy, flower child viticulture and doing the “right thing” in a concerted reaction against the negativity of more modern and industrialized times is essentially looking at the past through very rosy-coloured glasses. Clearly, all that doesn’t necessarily mean that in the rare times of prosperity some enlightened groups of monks somewhere couldn’t grow and tend to vines in a more proper manner, and make very good wines; but that was the exception rather than the rule.

To be scientific or not to be

When in doubt about a specific subject, science can come to the aid of those who wish to understand and know more about it. After all, you probably wouldn’t start popping pills to cure cancer unless you knew their efficacy had been verified and proven by some scientific journal or government entity. Trouble is, at the core of field blends and why they should work relative to the making of good wines, scientific support is currently relatively thin. To say, as some do, that wines made from field blends are prized for a level of balance, harmony and complexity has little basis in scientific data and essentially amounts to wishful thinking at best. In fact, just thinking about what a field blend is about tells you that balance and harmony are just about the last thing thing one should expect in a wine made with field blends. For example, identifying the right harvest time for each grape variety has always been tantamount to making good wines in just about any century (ie. identifying the time at which the grapes are perfectly ripe and therefore should be picked so as to not make underripe or overripe wines). If we accept that viewpoint, as most of us do, then it it makes absolutely no sense as to why making wine from a field blend of ten or fifteen different varieties, all with different ripening curves, would ever lead to making the best possible wine at all. And never mind that planting those 10-15 varieties all on the same soil means at least a number of them are not at all planted in the best soil type for each. Therefore, once again, it really doesn’t seem logical to infer that a field blend will ever allow the grape varieties in that vineyard to show their best, and is even less likely to express some hypothetical notion of “terroir”. At present, I have no knowledge of scientifically valid research that showcases that wines made from field blends have more varietally-accurate, higher or more diversified, concentrations of aroma and flavour molecule profiles as compared to wines made in the same vineyards from conventional viticulture and winemaking.

All of which does not mean that empirical observations are without value: quite the contrary. Antibiotics, which despite what some might think are undoubtedly one of humanity’s greatest “inventions”, were discovered by chance: Fleming found one day that moulds that had gotten into poorly sealed petri dishes containing bacteria had killed off the bacteria immediately around where the moulds had set up shop, so to speak; and not being a haplessly obliging chap who walked through life asleep, it dawned upon him that maybe the moulds produced something that could kill bacteria. A totally novel concept at the time, but with far-reaching implications that then needed to be proven to be accepted. But the seed of thought in this regard was sown, and the rest is history. Similarly, Jenner grasped the implications and importance of vaccination by observing that cow handlers who milked cows, animals often hit by the cowpox virus, rarely if ever succumbed to smallpox (differently from cowpox, smallpox is an extremely lethal disease to humans). The cowpox and smallpox viruses share morphological similarities and so Jenner correctly hypothesized that those who milked cows, by getting infected with cowpox, were then more resistant to smallpox. This was because the former could trick the human body into inducing a defense mechanism that would also be at least partly effective against smallpox. Both men were right of course, but at the time there was no scientific journal to support their views. However, there was undoubtedly something to their observations, that were later proved beyond doubt. To a degree, if in a totally different realm of importance, there are some observational, empirical, signs that tell us that there might be something to field blends as well.

Proponents of the “field blends are just dandy” theory say (as for example does Jean-Michel Deiss of the famous Marcel Deiss estate in Alsace) that vines co-planted together in the same vineyard adapt to their surroundings and adjust their ripening curves so as to reach optimal ripeness levels more or less at the same time. Other producers, from California to Australia, have told me much the same over the years: for example, while grape such as Grenache and Syrah can reach optimal ripeness levels as much as six weeks apart, in old vineyards where the said varieties co-exist their tendency is to reach acceptable ripeness levels much closer in time to each other (say two weeks apart instead of six, for example). And so it is that, in the case of field blends, the goal for every winemaker is finding that perfect temporal sweet spot in which all the various grapes in that field/vineyard can be picked together because they have reached an acceptable average level of ripeness. Which in my view is exactly the point that many seem to be missing: if something is “average”, then it’s hardly the best of anything. Frankly speaking, the best “average level of ripeness” is hardly the best of anything. In my experience, greatly different grape varieties do not ever adapt enough to allow making an average picking time the recipe by which to make truly great wines. Sylvaner, Muscat à Petit Grains (Moscato Bianco) and Pinot Noir are just too different for that to really happen, at least not over the course of just one short growing season. Furthermore, to believe that Pinot Noir in a hot Alsace grand cru like the Mambourg will make itself at home and fare well is unlikely, and really hard for many to accept. What I have seen happen in such cases is that the only way out for the producer (“the only way out” meaning the only way left by which to make a good wine) is to push that field’s/vineyard’s grape ripeness levels to an extreme by late harvesting everything. But the consequence of such action is that the resulting wine, though it may be very luscious and even delicious, is usually also characterized by very high levels of alcohol and ripeness that may not be for everyone. For sure, balance is not usually the forte of such wines. Along the same lines, it may also be eons before Pinot Noir ever adapts to a hot site. It certainly isn’t going to happen in a vineyard situated in hot mesoclimate and with a hot microclimate that was only recently partly replanted with Pinot Noir. Unless you think that transporting a polar bear to the Sahara would also allow the poor thing to live happy and to thrive there, then I fail to see why anybody with their brain switched turned to the “on” position would ever think that a cool-climate loving variety such as Pinot Noir would do well in a hot site. Not for the first fifty to a hundred years, at least, or until enough mutations occur in that grapevine’s genome to make it so it can successfully adapt to and live in its new environment. That is, if said grapevine ever survives long enough to get to that stage of its existence.

At the same time, it is undoubtedly true that some wines made from field blends are far better than you’d ever expect, so there is certainly some level of grapevine adaptation that does take place. Why that might be has not yet been studied enough; but you really have to wonder, as I do, if the high quality of such wines isn’t so much a function of co-planting but rather a function of such vineyards usually being populated by the estate’s oldest vines. Forty to one hundred years old vines have a very different physiology than young vines and almost unfailingly give the best (best as in deepest, most complex) wines of that winery. So you’d expect a wine made from a winery’s oldest vines to give you that winery’s best wines. Furthermore, it is only logical to assume that if those old vines had been planted as a monovariety vineyard in the first place instead of being partly co-planted with other varieties, they would still give the estate’s best wines. All that, and we still haven’t even begun to consider such non-trivial matters (non-trivial given its agriculture we are talking about, after all) such as specific soil type, soil granulometry, soil water regimen and drainage, slope gradient, topography… And so you’ll excuse me for being dense, but if one grape variety is well-known to perform best in a specific soil type, a soil type altogether different than one preferred by another variety, then I for one fail to see how any amount of adaptation over the course of a short growing season will ever allow co-planting to get grapevines of different varieties to overcome their individual, variety-specific soil granulometry and mineral content needs (never mind water-regimen needs), for example. Clearly, I am not oblivious to the possibility that it may be that over the course of twenty to forty years (or much more) the vines adapt to a degree then that these problems are ultimately overcome. For example, I fail to see how anybody can think that planting Nero d’Avola (a variety that handles drought extremely well and that hates humidity) would find itself happy to be somewhere it rains all the time. Aglianico for sure would not be happy to be in a droughty environment, even if you planted it in the company of Nero d’Avola and other grape varieties it thinks are just swell and with which it likes to hang around. Truth is, for the time being, many questions about the “why’s” of field blends remain unanswered. I don’t know about you, but I for one am not ready to accept, for example, that the world is flat just because there is no steep drop-off to speak of when standing on the beach at Nantucket or the Algarve.

Examples of field blends that work (to a degree)

Then again, there is no need to appear dogmatic about any of this; and besides, why stand in the way of a more romantic notion about wine and winemaking? The idea of some cosmic harmony that can give us the best wine possible through field blending is certainly worth looking into.

And you know, there are in fact many lovely wines made from field blends. As mentioned, in Alsace there are estates engaging in this ancient art: the aforementioned Domaine Marcel Deiss, but also Hebinger, Domaine Schoech, Domaine Geschickt, and many others. Whether you think their wines are superior to those of the likes of Zind Humbrecht and Domaine Weinbach, estates that aren’t known for field blends, is another matter.

A very well-known wine made from field blends is Austria’s Wiener Gemischter Satz, Vienna’s traditional wine that is best enjoyed in the city’s heurigers, or wine taverns. A Gemischter Satz must be a blend of at least three white varieties, planted together in one Viennese vineyard. It’s a lively, easy-going wine that is simple and delicious. But as good and enjoyable as these wines are, they are never the best wine made at any Austrian estate. After all, Knoll and Bründlmayer did not become world-famous because of their field blend wines. Field blends are also common in Portugal, where many Port vineyards are planted to so many different grapes that even the owners of said vineyards do not really know what is exactly growing there (given Portugal’s wealth of native grapes, it is hardly surprising things are so). Greece, another country that boasts a treasure-trove of ancient, local grapes, is the home of the Rapsani wines that have been traditionally made as field blends for hundreds of years. Rapsani is an official denomination the wines of which are composed of equal percentages of the Xinomavro, Krassato, and Stavroto grapes. In California, South Africa and Australia, heritage vineyards dating back to the late nineteenth century are commonly planted to field blends. But in my experience, many such vineyards were not in fact planted to exactly equal percentages of many different grapes; rather there is always one grape that predominates, with others planted in smaller percentages. Clearly, the obvious aim in such cases was to make a more balanced wine [in the manner of left bank Bordeaux where Merlot is added to combat Cabernet Sauvignon’s obvious, well-known defects or Tuscany where small amounts of Canaiolo Nero (and even white grapes) were added to soften Sangiovese] rather than a field blend wine per se.

In ultimate analysis, wines made from field blends offer something different: for sure, a very different take on wine, one that can attract new enthusiasts and consumers to the world we love. That is all well and good. Many such wines can be delicious and real fun to drink, and that’s very good too. Furthermore, wines made from field blends also offer a nostalgic, feel-good look at the way things were done in the good old days (and not wanting to be a spoilsport, I’ll refrain from mentioning that those were also the “good old days” when people were routinely dying of polio, cholera, and smallpox, for example). But expressing terroir though the use of field blends, or truly offering a “terroir presence” that goes beyond just simple wishful thinking and poetic mumbo-jumbo, is really another kettle of fish. The word “terroir”, if it is to mean anything at all, has to have some boundaries attached to it. In fact, it does, if you care to read and learn from such true luminaries as Peynaud and Van Leeuwen. After all, it is only fair to expect wine lovers who do their homework then start asking questions, rather than just gullibly swallowing hook, line and sinker every clever (marketing) hook that is thrown their way.


Ian D'Agata

Editor-in-Chief of Terroir Sense Wine Review
President of Terroir Sense Academy
Vice President of Association Internationale des Terroirs
Chief Scientific Officer of TasteSpirit

Ian D’Agata has been writing and educating about wines for over thirty years. Internationally recognized as an distinguished expert, critic and writer on many wine regions, his two most recent, award winning books Native Wine Grapes of Italy and Italy's Native Wine Grape Terroirs (both published by University of California Press) are widely viewed as the "state of the art" textbooks on the subject. The former book won the Louis Roederer International Wine Awards Book of the Year in 2015 and was ranked as the top wine books of the year for the Los Angeles Times, the Financial Times and the New York Times, while the latter was named among the best wine books of the year by Food & Wine Magazine and the NY Times.

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  • Bravo! Some truth in the face of the uncritical fashion of our times. Probably the most successful practicioner of the Field-blend-As maximizing the good in wine is the Deiss estate. It is my understanding that Jean-Michel Deiss discovered that most Alsace wines used to be field blends. I ask–does an historical fact necessarily imply excellence? Do we have to follow the what-was into the now? Yes the Deiss field blends are often very fine wines. The most recent addition to the Deiss offerings is the Grand Cru Schlossberg. It is predominantly Riesling. That is quite apparent in the wine’s aromatics, taste and texture. It is an utterly brilliant wine. It seems that Riesling can do quite well as a near stand alone grape–in the right terroir.

    • Well, I certainly don’t have the answers to any of this! There’s a lot to field blends and their wines that makes very little sense; then again, there are some field blend wines that are undoubtedly delicious. As to what makes field blend wines work or not, I don’t know, and I don’t think anybody else does either, yet; my piece was just meant to be thought-provoking because I for one feel that there’s too much of the “Emperor’s new clothes” going on in wines nowadays, and frankly, I’m a little tired of it. All too often nowadays people jump on the bandwagon without giving what is being said much thought. But I couldn’t agree more with you Robert in that Deiss makes some exceptional wines. But in order to achieve balance, I wonder if he hasn’t had to push ripeness levels overall by late harvesting, which might not be necessary if the individual varieties were growing on their own in dedicated plots. Still, if you like the style, there’s no arguing with how good his Schlossberg, the Schoenenbourg, etc..etc… wines are!

      • Excellent point. It is unlikely that 6 varietals ripen optimally at the same time! One could face over ripeness and under ripeness at the same time. Throw out the less than optimal grapes? If the aesthetic goal requires co-fermentation then the wines will probably lean to over ripe. Diess’ approach is too ideological in my opinion. It makes a religion of an historical fact.

Ian D'Agata