The hip, cozy watering hole known as Backbar occupies a back room of Journeyman restaurant in the scrappy Boston satellite city of Somerville. With its usual team of cocktail jockeys off for a few days of social muddling at a trade event, GM Meg Grady-Troia filled the void with a couple of somm-for-a-night guests. Sunday night was handed over to me. The topic: the true field blend.
I’ve been interested in the subject since my first exposure to the wines of Jean-Michel Deiss eight or ten years ago. It was re-piqued after a tasting with young Mathieu Deiss when he was in Boston in 2010, and then again after a lengthy chat with Piedmont producer Christophe Künzli in June (see “A bias against the blend? Christophe Künzli considers). The opportunity to assemble a dozen or so to taste in a single evening seemed irresistible, but pulling together a representative sampling from Massachusetts distributors proved a challenge.
This is in part because today ‘field blend’ has both connotative and denotative meanings. The phrase can simply refer to a casual, inexpensive, varietally diverse wine – as most sales people I spoke to understood it – or, more precisely, to wine made from an interplanted vineyard from which grapes of multiple varieties are harvested all at once and vinified as a single lot in the same proportions as they grew in the field. It’s distinguished from simple co-fermentation in which grapes harvested from different vineyards are fermented together in a ratio determined by the winemaker (for example in Cote Rotie where the red grape syrah is traditionally fermented with a modest percentage of white viognier grapes).
The field blend . . . seems to exist to prove the power of a vineyard to express a unified identity through the medium of multiple varietals.
There’s generally no indication on a label to indicate when you’re dealing with a true field blend: you have to ask or do the research yourself. To find one it makes sense to start in regions where the tradition has always been to combine varietals, either with a view to providing a more consistent experience from vintage to vintage or to mitigate the risks involved with monoculture. The southern Rhone is traditionally exemplary in this respect, as is Bordeaux, Champagne, Portugal, and much of Italy. Alsace has its edelzwicker and gentil; Austria its gemischter Satz.
Indeed the notion of single varietal winemaking appears to be a relatively recent phenomenon, with a few notable exceptions. In Burgundy’s prestige climats pinot noir was established as the sole official option for fine red wine as early as the fourteenth century, but even there gamay may join pinot in a blend known as passetoutgrain. In regions where blending has long been the norm, the standard practice is to plant each varietal in a discrete plot, harvest and vinify them separately, then treat the various lots as components in a final assemblage. This approach is one that’s a lot like cooking: you select individual ingredients then combine them in proportions you think will result in the dish you have in mind.
A true field blend not only requires an interplanted vineyard but a bit of nerve. At a time when almost every winemaker is eager to remind you that his wine is “made in the vineyard,” those willing to trust their vineyard with the blending are few.
Two disturbing bits of news emerged while planning for the event. The first was learning that Domaine Marcel Deiss and U.S. importer Vintus ended their relationship a year ago. Jean-Michel Deiss has decided to work directly with individual distributors in the states. So far no Massachusetts distributor has stepped forward. The few bottles we were able to collect for the backbar event came from Carolina Wine & Spirits, a division of wholesale behemoth Martignetti. It’s nothing short of a scandal that so fine and conscientious a property should go begging for U.S. representation.
Downer number two: Portuguese specialist importer Jack Couto of Grape Moments whom I imagined would be a good source of these wines(in Portugal field blends comprised of 20 or even 40 varietals are not unheard of) told me that interplanted vineyards in the Douro and elsewhere were being rapidly replanted with single varietals (tinto roriz and touriga nacional being particularly favored). As a result, he had nothing to offer.
At a time when there is more interest in vins de terroir than ever before, it’s strange indeed that the field blend – which seems to exist to prove the power of a vineyard to express a unified identity through the medium of multiple varietals — can’t seem to get any respect. Winemakers who practice the art evidently believe their vineyards have something to say. It would be nice if more people were willing to give them a hearing.
Field blends tasting notes
Tour de Gendres Bergerac “Classique” 2011. Blend of semillion and sauvignon blanc. Shows crisp peach-pear fruit and a distinctly piney note. Nicely lively acidity; wee burn on the finish. Oz Wine Company.
Eugenio Rosi “Anisos” 2008. Lovely medium gold hue; fullish aromas that rumble with low register tones – not char or smoke but something in that vein. Palate feels leesy with poignant acidicity and some lightly clingy texture. Lots of beautifully clean, crisp orchard fruits and some distinct salinity reminiscent of fino sherry. Adonna Imports.
Carafagna “Rosso Saverio” Isola della Giglio IGT Maremma 2009. Pale garnet with some brown tints; rather high-toned cherry-like fruit with overlay of leafy-herbal aspects; combines a bit of residual sugar with an appealingly bitter edge and quite dry finish. Has features in common with an aperitivo. There’s a crowd of grapes at the bottom this including aniolo, sanjiovese, cilegiolo, grenache;, aleatico, muscat, biancone, empolo grecanico, procanico. Adonna Imports.
Jean David Cotes du Rhone 2011. Deep purple-blue hue; classic, warm CDR aromas and flavors; nice balance of bright red berry fruit, soil, and acids here. Benefits from a bit of cooling down. Pleasing, flavorful, classic example of the breed. Mise Wines
Pinhal da Torre Quinta do Alqueve “Tradicional” 2009. Nice big mouthful of moderately tannic, juicy fruit. Pleasingly rustic, chewy, textured quaff. Portuguese country wine par excellence. Classic Wine Imports
Wieninger Wiener Gemischter Satz 2011. Sleek, simple, fruity Viennese cafe blend. A dose of minerality adds to interest here. Lowish acidity suggest this will be nicer well-chilled. Better with nibbles. Winebow.
Château de Saint-Cosme “Deux Albions” Cotes du Rhone 2009. Big, rich, thickish and dense; aromas of black fruits, licorice, resin, and a little tar. More dense than the category calls for; be prepared for a lot of wine in the wine. Classic Wine Imports
Ridge Alexander Valley Geyserville 2010. Very bright, dense, rich raspberry-strawberry-like fruit with some grippy tannins and clingy fruit. There may not be any significant residual sugar here here, but the impression is of a lingering, brambly sweetness. A classy hunk. Classic Wine Imports
Domaine Marcel Deiss Englegarten Alsace 2007. Mineral-dominant aromas and some oily notes; mouth shows tiny trace of spritz; some viscosity with creamy petrol-inflected fruit; notes of ripe pear and floral/spice. Could wish for a bit more acidity here, but it’s a quibble. This is lovely stuff. No current Massachusetts distributor.