Field Blending: Tips from the Pros

People blend wines for many reasons and are able to fine tune their blends by drawing the best characteristics from each wine blended. For centuries winemakers have started their blends right in the vineyard, growing a combination of grapes that stick together through out the entire process. Crushed, macerated and fermented together, these grapes come together in a technique known as field blending. Here’s some insight from two pros who live by the field blend.

Jeff Gaffner grew up in Sonoma, California and has been in the wine business most of his life. He started Saxon Brown Wines in Sonoma County in 1997 and is a consultant to numerous wineries in Napa and Sonoma.

Field blending is a practice that has been around forever. The idea is simple: The winemaker actually plants the blend in the field. For example, vines of Zinfandel, Petite Syrah, Alicante Bouchet and Carignane are co-mingled in the field, picked together and co-fermented.

Saxon Brown’s vineyard was planted 100 years ago as a field blend. It was the way things used to be done, prior to the era of big wineries. To me, it is the more intuitive approach to vineyard management and winemaking. A school like University of California Davis (and other large wineries) creates a safe methodology for controlling wine production — this includes segregating grapes in the field, segregating them during fermentation and only blending after aging.

Field blending requires that winemakers be far more in touch with what’s going on from start to finish during the winemaking process, but it is particularly important to know what is going on in the field.

So this means that the winemaker has to be out in the field each day, walking the rows, noticing what is working well in certain places and not so well in others. Perhaps you will see that Zinfandel doesn’t grow so well in this spot, but it grows great in that spot. That might lead to some changes to the vineyard in subsequent years.

It is really a process that lends itself well to the small winery. I would argue that the small players in the business as well as the hobbyists, are in the perfect position to work, manage, and perfect field-blended wines — simply because they have the ability to work the field.

Large wineries simply do not have the manpower or the budgets to justify extensive time spent working the fields, making long-term decisions to improve a field blend. I like to consider field blending (when compared to the techniques of large wineries planting large segments of single varietals) a case of going from one-dimensional winemaking to multi-dimensional winemaking.

In other words, to me it is like cooking with more than one spice. You’re growing a variety of grapes together, you’re harvesting them simultaneously, you’re fermenting them together.

Think about how exciting that is! Your different varieties will likely ripen at different speeds, so you are going to have some grapes at, say, 22 ºBrix while others are at 28. This leads to all sorts of flavor variations, and this will find its way into your final wine.

By fermenting together, you automatically create a complexity that you would never find in a single varietal. By themselves, the grapes in a field blend would be awkward, lonely. But together, the winemaker is playing with all sorts of great flavors, and a very complex wine.

If you are a fanatical hobbyist, then the best thing to do is plant a small vineyard as a field blend. You will learn first-hand — along a very steep curve — what it means to understand a vineyard and to make changes that improve the field blend.

But I understand this is not practical for most. The second best choice (and for most, it’s the ideal choice) is to find a vineyard that actually field blends. Hunt down one of these places and make some inquiries about buying grapes. That will get you started.

Another decent route is to find a vineyard (or several vineyards close together) with varietals you want to field blend yourself. Proximity is important because you will want to go in, test the grapes, taste and look at the juice and harvest all at once. It doesn’t work if you need to travel extensively between vineyards.

Decide from that winery (or those wineries) what you want to make and what you want to buy. Determine how much tonnage you will need. Then ask how much a particular row holds. Once you know that, flag entire rows and just buy the grapes that way — don’t worry about the percentage of any particular grape in the field blend.

If you go back to the vineyards year-after-year, and particularly purchase the same rows, you will find that the undertones of the wine will be the same, but each year will have its own distinct personality.

The key to field blended wine is patience. We give our blends at least two years in the barrel, and one year in the bottle before it’s ready to go. We are just releasing the 2001 right now.

Chris Leamy is has been the winemaker at Montevina in Plymouth, California for five years. He studied microbiology at UC Davis and worked at Sebastiani for four and a half years.

Field blending is the old, traditional, Italian way of planting a vineyard. It goes back to the days when winemakers would simply throw vines into a field. It did not even matter if they were red and white grapes mixed together. They did not worry about things like varietals. The grapes were grown and picked, crushed and fermented together. The result was wine.

This has been lost to some extent because, in the modern winemaking world, we are all focused on the concept of varietals. Everything is managed separately. Blending is something that is done after the fact. In some ways, I liken field blending to cooking food. Think about this question: Does soup
taste better when it is cooked with salt, or when you only add the salt after cooking?

I’d argue the soup is best when cooked with salt. And the same principal holds true for field blending. Co-fermenting grapes allows compounds in those different grapes to interact and react to one another, ultimately resulting in a more complex wine.

By contrast, since a single varietal fermented by itself never gets exposure to another grape, it doesn’t get the chance to broaden and deepen in flavor. Field blending, thus, becomes an amazing way to add some complexity to your wine. You can explore issues with specific grapes, tweak flavors and add important things to the wine before you need them rather than after the fact.

An example: Barbera grapes are high in acid. In field-blended wines, they raise the acid level. This is better than adding acid manually in a single-varietal wine. It is really amazing how putting just 3–5% of some different grape into fermentation with another grape will make a better wine. Like adding a little Petite Syrah to Zinfandel and co-fermenting results in a better Zin. The structure becomes noticeably superior.

Field blending is ultimately a learning experience. It is a way to throw some spice into your wine, metaphorically speaking. It starts with the procurement of raw material. Much of this will be up to your individual tastes and what you have available.