Monday, November 9, 2009

Wine basics: Field Blends

When you are in Grinzing, Vienna, Austria, for a Heurigen wine, the wine of the current year, you often find wines on the wine list that do not indicate the grape varietal on the label, but say Gemischter Satz. These wines are blends. But they are not only blends, but field blends. Field blends are made from a blend of grapes that are grown together in the field and then picked and fermented at the same time.

Field blends are different from more typical blended wines, cuvees, like Bordeaux, where the various grapes are grown separately and vinified separately. Many famous wines are blended wines. Red Bordeaux is generally made from a blend of grapes. As a very broad generalization, Cabernet Sauvignon (second most planted variety) dominates the blend in red wines produced in the Médoc and the rest of the left bank of the Gironde estuary. Typical blends are 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet Franc & 15% Merlot. Merlot (most planted variety) and to a lesser extent Cabernet France (third most planted variety) dominate in Saint Emilion, Pomerol and the other right bank appellations. These blends are typically 70% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Franc & 15% Cabernet Sauvignon.

Another cuvee is Edelzwicker, which I and discussed in my “in the glass" column on my Blog on November 5, 2009. In the past, blending was the norm in Alsace, and these blends were called "zwicker". Edelzwicker (noble-blend) is a "zwicker" made only from grapes considered to be noble.

In Germany, there is a wine called ‘Schiller” that is produced by blending red and white grapes before fermentation. It looks like a Rose, but it is not, at least not in the French tradition. You can find Schiller only in the region of Württemberg in the south of Germany. The wine got its name from the verb “schillern”. The verb “schillern” means “to scintillate”. “Schiller” is thus a wine with a scintillating color, reflecting the fact that the wine is a blend of red and white grapes. In the past, Schiller used to be a Gemischter Satz wine, but to my knowledge nobody does it any more. Today, Schiller is a blend, but not a field blend. See my posting of August 12, 2009.

Some people argue that Gemischter Satz is the true terroir wine. They argue that winemakers can resort today to all sorts of easy fixes if their wines don’t come out the way they want them. They can add acid if necessary, or tannins, or color, compensating in the laboratory for what they did not get from nature. In the old days before such trickery was available, winemakers had to think ahead about what their site would give them. In the way they planted the vineyard you could see their vision of what would make the most complete wine: Zinfandel, for example, providing the spicy, fruity core of the wine with Petite Sirah added for tannins and Carignan for freshness and acidity.

In France, Jean-Michel Deiss from the Domaine Marcell Deiss is a well known proponent of this approach. “Just about any French vineyard owner will talk terroir given the opportunity, but no one argues the case for terroir more passionately than Marcell Deiss.” says Robert Parker. Jean-Michel Deiss believes that the truest expression of Alsatian terroir comes from field blends. He has planted his best vineyards with numerous grapes, which he harvests and vinifies together. Jean-Michel Deiss treats them as a true field blend, and consequently harvests, vinifies and blends them together. Jean-Michel Deiss' project is perceived by many of his neighbors as radical, even revolutionary. He argues that his goal is a return to the methods, style, and traditions that gave Alsace wines such fame and fortune from the Middle Ages until the end of the 19th century.

The Gemischter Satz practice was common throughout Central Europe in a time when most growers had very small vineyards. To reduce the risk of having no grapes - and no income - at all, they planted many varieties. It also was viewed as an approach that produces over the years a wine with consistent quality. To achieve this, they mixed varieties with a different ripening time and with different acidity levels, with a view of minimizing risk and ensuring a consistent quality of wine.

Today, Gemischte Satz wines have disappeared. And those that are still produced tend to be table wines for day to day drinking. People like Deiss are the exception. Vincent Klink, the fabulous chef from Stuttgart, Germany, visited Deiss last year and wrote about it in the Feinschmecker of June 2008. The article is also on the web site of the Domaine Deiss.

Is Gemischter Satz the true expression of terroir? In a way it is. Read more about his on the Blog of Eric Asimov from the New York Times on November 3, 2009.

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