The hip, cozy watering hole known as Backbar occupies a back room of Journeyman restaurant in Somerville’s Union Square. With its usual team of cocktail jockeys off at a trade event a couple of years ago, then GM Meg Grady-Troia filled the void with a few somms-for-a-day. I was pleased to be asked in. My topic: the true field blend.
The opportunity to assemble a dozen or so of these increasingly unusual wines to taste in a single evening seemed irresistible, but pulling together a representative sampling from Massachusetts distributors proved a challenge.
Today field blend can simply refer to a casual, inexpensive, varietally diverse wine, and this is the way most sales people I spoke to understood it. More precisely it indicates wine made from a single plot where multiple varieties grow together and where the fruit is both harvested all at one time and vinified together — surely the earliest form of viticulture.
This approach is distinguished from a more common process in which grapes harvested from different vineyards are fermented together in a ratio determined by the winemaker (for example in Côte-Rôtie where the red grape Syrah is traditionally fermented with a modest percentage of white Viognier grapes). This is called co-fermentation.
There’s generally no indication on a label to indicate when you’re dealing with a true field blend. 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.
Field blends are surely the most traditional way of making wine and the approach is still quite strong in Portugal, the Languedoc and the southern Rhone Valley, as well as the extreme north and south of Italy. There are apparently still hundreds of such vineyards in California (Ridge Winery’s Geyserville is the product of one). Alsace has several generic wines in this category including edelzwicker and gentil. Vienna has its prototypical café wine: 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 vineyards 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 — which means something like “let all the grapes through.”
In regions where blending is the norm, the standard practice today is to plant each varietal in a discrete plot, harvest and vinify each separately, then treat the various lots as components in a final assemblage (ah-som-BLAHJ). The approach is one that’s a lot like cooking or maybe perfume-making. You select individual ingredients then combine them in proportions you think will result in a pleasing result.
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 let the vineyard itself do the blending are few indeed.
Several true field blends grace the shelves at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge these days. They include Domaine Saladin’s “Cuvée Paul” Côtes du Rhone, Eugenio Rosi’s “Anisos” — a Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco, Nosiola blend from the Trentino region — and Farmers Jane California Field Red.
Have a field day.
Stephen Meuse is a wine buyer at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge, and regularly talks wine on local PBS affiliate WGBH with America’s Test Kitchen Radio host Christopher Kimball.