Pop into a wine store today and note racks stacked with trendy red California wines that are, as winery marketing folks emphasize, surprising and unique blends of seemingly incongruous grapes. The Prisoner Wine Company says that its flagship bottling, The Prisoner, is an "unlikely mix" of zinfandel blended with cabernet sauvignon, syrah, petite sirah, and charbono; Ménage à Trois’ Midnight is "Crafted from a blend of not three—but four—grapes!" including cabernet, petite sirah, petit verdot and merlot. And we all have that friend who adores Apothic, a zinfandel-dominant "truly unique wine experience." Dark red blends like these, reports Wine Business Monthly, saw a 400 percent increase in sales from 2013 to 2014. But is there really anything new about the crazy red blend bottlings these wineries are selling?
Not at all. For centuries, European farmers have made blended sacramental and everyday wine by harvesting and fermenting whichever grapes were planted in their fields. Though uncommon, the tradition of making field blends continues today in winemaking regions around the world. When European immigrants seeking to strike it rich with gold migrated to California in the early 1850s, some brought indigenous vine cuttings with them, like Hungarian count and Buena Vista Winery founder Ágoston Haraszthy. After touring the continent, in 1861 Haraszthy transported more than 100,000 European vine cuttings to California.
"In the 1850s and 1860s, the growers were pretty clearly just trying different varieties," says Ravenswood Winery founder and winemaker Joel Peterson, who has been making field-blended zinfandel for over 40 years in Sonoma, California. "Sometimes it was what was available, other times it was with some rationale." After the phylloxera louse struck in the 1880s and "replanting was done, the mix [of grapes] became more predictable. Growers had learned more about what the key varieties did for a mix in a particular location." In Napa and Sonoma, most of these late-19th century heritage vineyards were predominantly planted to zinfandel, with complementary but lesser-known varieties like petite sirah, carignane, and alicante bouchet interspersed. The hodgepodge of red grapes that collectively comprise classic California field blends is sometimes called "mixed blacks," a tradition that The Prisoner—which is not a field blend—acknowledges "created and inspired" the brand's "unlikely mix" of grapes.
When I committed myself to making old vine zinfandel, I was unwittingly committing myself to making interplanted field blends. The more time I spent walking the vineyards and talking to the "old timers," the more I became aware of the presence of these interloping wines in the zin mix. The "old timers" would refer to a block of grapes in the plural. If they said zinfandels I knew it was a mixed black block. As time passed, I became more aware of the mixed-black contribution to the mix. The vineyards that were more mixed generally produced darker, more complex, interesting wines." —Joel Peterson, founder of Ravenswood Winery
What Is a Field Blend?
Most wines we drink today are made of grapes harvested from various vineyards throughout a county, state, or even country, fermented in separate lots, and then blended together into a finished wine. As their name suggests, field blends are single-vineyard wines whose grapes are grown, harvested, and vinified together—the blending is done in the vineyard, not in the winery. The flavor profiles of these wines will vary according to the grapes they contain, but, says Sandra Tavares da Silva, co-proprietor of Wine & Soul in Portugal’s Douro Valley, "field blends reach another level of complexity, balance, and elegance that is very difficult to reach in blended wines."
Field blends are single-vineyard wines whose grapes are grown, harvested and vinified together.
Field-blended vineyards are interplanted with multiple grape varieties—sometimes all red or all white, and sometimes both red and white—without apparent rhyme or reason. This means that a zinfandel vine might be sandwiched between carignan on one side and petite sirah on the other; it could even be that one variety is grafted onto another variety’s rootstock. The whole field is then picked at once (deciding on the perfect day to harvest grape varieties that ripen at different intervals is a testament to the winemaker’s skill and artistry), and all of the grapes are fermented in the same pot, so to speak. Like their European counterparts, some California winemakers, among them Bolinas-based, self-proclaimed "antithesis of corporate wine-making" Sean Thackrey, for example, can only identify about two-thirds of the grapes in Orion, his flagship wine.
While field-blended white wines do exist, one can only speculate as to why they’re far less common than reds. "There’s just virtually no old vine white left in California," says Mike Officer, proprietor and winemaker of Carlisle Wines in Santa Rosa, California. "I suspect that’s because winemakers—or at least most of them—don’t feel that the age of vines for whites is as critical for quality as it is for reds. It could also be that white varieties just don't survive as long due to greater susceptibility to disease." His intensely aromatic 2014 Compagni Portis White Wine, a field blend of gewürztraminer, trousseau gris, and riesling, is a terrific example. For those seeking European bottlings, Wieninger’s 2014 Gemischter Satz (or "mixed set") from Austria is a good place to start.
While field-blended white wines do exist, one can only speculate as to why they’re far less common than reds.
As most any winemaker who works with blended old vine vineyards will say, the hodgepodge of grapes aspect of field-blended wines isn’t the only element that makes them special. What’s more amazing is that the fruit comes from vines that are at least 50, and sometimes over 150 years old; most of these vines are dry farmed (meaning, they aren’t irrigated) and produce incredibly concentrated, flavorful grapes. The old vine vineyards that remain today are kind of the agricultural equivalents of buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.
Per Thackrey, "The wine's composition is absolutely crucial, particularly given the intense individuality vines will acquire after bearing fruit" for over 100 years. He continues, "What isn't crucial is naming the varietals involved since, after all, I'm not making wine from archetypal varietals, I'm making wine 100 percent from whatever's out in that field."
Where to Find Field Blends
Consumers interested in exploring field blends will likely have a tough time tracking them down because few of these wines are labeled as such on the bottle. In America, wines that are comprised of at least 75 percent of a single grape variety—as are, for example, Carlisle’s and Ravenswood’s zinfandels—will be labeled as a varietal wine. Portuguese and other European field blends are usually just labeled red or white wine, along with appellation of origin. So, enlisting the advice of your favorite retailers and sommeliers, particularly those who dork out on old vine wines, is always helpful. For example, Josh Nadler, beverage director for New York City's NoHo Hospitality group, devotes a whole section of The Dutch's wine list to field blends. "We’re honoring the past and present of California wine," he says. "The fact and reality is, there are only so many of these [heritage vineyards] left."
In addition to the wineries featured below, field blends from Turley, Bedrock Wine Co., Teutonic Wine Company and Tom Gore Vineyards are all worth seeking out. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it a good place to start. It’s also worthwhile to learn the names of some of these heritage vineyards because many of them sell fruit to more than one winery. The online directory of the Historic Vineyard Society, a nonprofit "dedicated to the preservation of California’s historic vineyards," lists over 200 of California’s oldest vineyards, though not all are interplanted.
Field Blend Wines to Try
Producer: Wine & Soul
Wine: Pintas Character Vinho Tinto, 2013
From: Douro Valley, Portugal
Sandra Tavares da Silva and Jorge Serôdio Borges began Wine & Soul in 2001 with the intent to showcase Portugal’s traditional grape varieties. The Pintas Character is composed of over 30 of these varieties, including touriga franca, tinta roriz and touriga nacional—some of the grapes that comprise the region’s fortified wines. The berries that go into this wine are foot trodden in granite lagares, or containers.
Taste what’s in the bottle, and the whole "foot trodden" business won’t sound surprising. The wine is Old World all the way. Earth, seeped tea, and dusty tannins are layered over tangy black cherry and raspberry fruit flavors; dig deeper and you’ll reach a gravelly core. On the nose there’s more red fruit, plus chocolate, black pepper, rose/violet, and cinnamon aromas. Tannins are thick and textured, which suggest mid-term aging—decant this if you are drinking it young.
Producer: Stags’ Leap
Wine: Ne Cede Malis Petite Sirah, 2012
From: Napa, California
For those of you who didn’t bother with high school Latin, "Ne Cede Malis" (pronounced, "ne KAY day mah LEES") roughly translates to "don’t give in to misfortune." So named in honor of Stags’ Leap founder Horace Chase’s family motto, the wine is a petite sirah-dominant field blend of at least 17 grape varieties, six of which are white. (Check out the map of the Ne Cede Malis block on Stag’s Leap Winery’s website—it is a terrific visual of how haphazardly heritage vineyards were planted.) Winemaker Christophe Paubert says that the "white wine varieties are actually very aromatic" and "help soften the blend a bit, and make the wine more approachable in its youth." Vines in the Ne Cede Malis block date back to 1929. As one would expect of a wine with old vine petit sirah in the driver’s seat, this baby is very dark and, well, a baby. On the nose it shows blackberry, earth, white pepper, curry, cumin spiciness, and floral violet notes that persist throughout. The wine is rich and plump mid-palate, but young as it is, it's compelling plum, blueberry and earth flavors are cloaked in wooly tannins. At over $100, it is a bottle for "people who like unique wines and hidden jewels," adds Paubert, and "can easily age for more than 30 years."
Wine: Carlisle Vineyard Zinfandel, 2013
From: Sonoma, California
The Carlisle Vineyard was planted in 1927 and has 10 acres under vine. Proprietor and winemaker Mike Officer’s vineyard-designated zinfandel is a field blend of 87 percent zinfandel and 13 percent mixed black and white grape varieties (alicante bouchet, petite sirah, grand noir, trousseau noir, tempranillo, muscadelle, malvasia, muscat and 30 others). In case you drove right by that, we’ll say it again: This lush zinfandel is comprised of 39 different grape varieties, nine of which are white. Quantities of each variety "runs the gamut from a single vine to several hundred and everything in between," explains Officer. The grape varieties he could not identify himself Officer sent to UC Davis’ Foundation Plant Sciences for analysis.
The Carlisle Vineyard zinfandel is one of the sexiest wines you’ll have all year. With air, initial aromas of coffee and mocha make way for hints of herb, mint, forest floor, hickory smoke, deep plum, and cassis. Though sturdy and broad-shouldered, the wine glides over the palate, beautifully layering cascades of blueberry, black pepper, black plum, and cassis flavors as it unfolds. It’s aged in French oak (20 percent new), and shows accents of coffee, vanilla, and chili spice on the long finish. Whereas some field blends have a rough-and-tumble rusticity to them, this wine is quite the opposite. It feels seamless and deliberate, like every last grape on every vine was there for a reason, and contributes to the wine's overall composition.
Producer: Sean Thackrey Wine: Orion, California Native Red Wine, Rossi Vineyard, 2013 From: St. Helena, California
Grapes for this "California Native Red Wine," as Sean Thackrey calls it, are from the 111-year-old Rossi Vineyard in St. Helena. He explains, it’s a "single-vineyard wine that attempts to express the essence of the finest that vineyard is capable of producing." Even enophiles who haven’t tasted Orion know two things about it above all else. One, it is supposed to be freaking delicious (it is), and two, the complete cépage (varietal blend) is a mystery—even to Thackrey. As he tells it, two of the world’s foremost viticulturalists "did a tour [through the vineyard] many years ago and said they’d counted 11 different varietals, including four they’d never seen before."
Orion, well, it fires on all cylinders; it doesn’t leave a sensory stone unturned. As a superb wine should, it doles out new aromatics and flavors at every turn. On the nose, wheat flour, dried herb, ripe blackberry and finally, toffee cut through with mint, eucalyptus, and black pepper. The palate is all of these things, along with notes of clove and cinnamon, coffee and smoked meats, and loads of cassis and black fruits. It’s so rich and sensual that after a glass or two you may suffer a brief "this is just so rich and there’s so much going on, it’s just too much" moment of temporary insanity. And then you’ll probably regain your senses and pour some more.
Producer: Ridge Vineyards
Wine: Geyserville, 2014
From: Sonoma, California
Grapevines from the Old Patch of this Alexander Valley vineyard date back over 130 years. Ridge Geyserville is a departure from the strictest definition of a field blend in that not all of the grapes are fermented together. This is because "the Geyserville vineyard is so complex, and made up of many different vineyard blocks," some of which are interplanted and some of which are not, says Eric Baugher, Ridge’s vice president of winemaking at Monte Bello. The blocks are separated into 26 lots and blind tasted to identify the lots that, as Baugher describes, are "typical Geyserville ... To arrive at a style that is consistent to prior vintages, we rely upon the assemblage process to achieve that goal. That is the principal reason the varietal percentages on our front label changes every year."
This 2014 Geyserville has just 60 percent zinfandel this year, much less than usual; the balance is carignane, petite sirah, mataro and alicante bouchet. It has sumptuous aromas of cocoa and ripe berry preserves, and just a hint of fig. Big and rich on the palate, this youngster benefits from decanting if drunk now. On the palate tannins are smooth; flavors are of blueberry, cassis, black pepper, with some fig, cocoa, and black pepper thrown in for good measure. A ribbon of acidity burrows its way through this rich, concentrated wine and brings the juice to a bright, lively finish.
Producer: Ravenswood Winery
Wine: Old Hill Zinfandel, 2013
From: Sonoma, California
Ravenswood founder and winemaker Joel Peterson makes seven single-vineyard zinfandels, four of which are field blends. Peterson began working with fruit from the Old Hill Ranch in 1982 shortly after its new owner, Otto Teller, cleared junked cars, appliances, and poison oak off the property in an effort to save the century-old old grapevines. The 40-year-old winery is home to some of the oldest vines in Sonoma County; the property was planted by William McPherson Hill (responsible for making California's first prestigious zinfandel) in 1862, and he replanted the vineyard again in 1885 after phylloxera hit. Old Hill hosts over 30 grape varieties, and the Ravenswood wine bearing its designation contains about 75 percent zinfandel and 25 percent "mixed blacks" (including typical zinfandel bedfellows like mataro, alicante bouchet, petite sirah and carignane).
The Old Hill Zinfandel, which is probably the most collectible and ageworthy of the Ravenswood zins, is the jewel in Peterson’s crown. Nose to finish, Old Hill is a kaleidoscope of tones, bright and dark, dense and light. There are blueberry, blackberry, sweet cream, mint, mocha, bramble, Mexican canela, and beautiful eucalyptus notes throughout, with an undercurrent of bitter chocolate. Velvety tannins give it a plush, opulent feel. It’s more elegant and reined in than one might expect of a zinfandel, but it’s built for the long haul, says Peterson, due in large part to the "complexity of the [varietal] mix and the profound character of the wine ... Four decades of age on [the 1982] have not proven that insight wrong."
Editor: Kat Odell