Growing together

Vineyards have existed since the times of the Pharaohs, between 3000 and 5000 years ago and even before then; vineyards as blocks of land but unlike today, tomb paintings show the vines growing in troughs and trained in arbours. Much detail was recorded of vine growing and wine making and, according to Hugh Johnson ‘By … 1550BC …. The labelling of wine jars was almost as precise as, say, California labelling today – with the exception of the grape variety.’ (Johnson’s book was published in 1989).

Today, thanks to DNA, identification of grape varieties and their parentage has reached levels undreamt as recent as 160 years ago, when phylloxera started wreaking havoc in European vineyards. It has been suggested to me that prior to this devastating louse, vineyards were far more varietaly mixed with marcottage, or layering, one method of adding new vines. Views from those with extensive knowledge on French vineyards also suggest  that post-phylloxera, when rootstocks began to be used, not all varieties reacted well to them, hence vineyards became more ordered, a process formalised by the AOC rules in the 1930s.

Fortunately, phylloxera didn’t wipe out all these randomly vine-populated vineyards; there are many worldwide producing memorable wines. Portugal’s Quinta do Crasto Maria Teresa in the Douro is a celebrated, nearly five hectare, one hundred-year plus old block of terraces. More fascinating, it is planted to over 50 varieties, mainly red, a few white and, at least one, yet to be identified. Such arrangement was not unusual, as the grapes were originally destined for Port.

Not all these old field-blend vineyards were randomly established, some were created with forethought as to how the varieties would produce a balanced wine. Ridge Pagani Vineyard in California was planted over 100 years ago with complementary varieties: mainly zinfandel, which ripens at higher sugar levels; alicante and petite sirah, ripening at lower levels plus a little carignan and whites for acidity.

But what of terroir in these multi-varietal vineyards? Domaine Deiss in Alsace tells a fascinating story of their Altenberg de Bergheim Grand Cru blend. In 1990 they established the first, modern Alsace vineyard totally planted and mixed without order of the area’s 13 grape varieties; these are harvested and pressed together and vinified without inputs. ‘Little by little, this model of winegrowing is imposing itself in our eyes as the means to allow the terroir to dominate the grape varieties and to impose its taste and tactile architecture in a sovereign way.’   

If expression of terroir offers contemplation, so does ripeness; how to judge when to harvest with varieties ripening at different times. Alsace’s Agathe Bursin has apparently noted varieties planted in field blends often ripen together as opposed to when planted separately; such symbiosis is not something that happens overnight.

These few of many international examples pave the way to explore the growing interest here in field blends.

There is no official designation of a field blend, though both Stark-Condé and the new Brookdale add the descriptor on their labels. Purists maintain the varieties should be inter-planted rather than kept separate within the block but harvested and vinified together. Stark-Condé take this latter approach, winemaker Rudger van Wyk contending it allows for better control.

These are relatively young enterprises. Eben Sadie’s Ouwingerds ‘T Voetpad  (chenin blanc, semillon blanc/gris, palomino and muscat d’Alexandrie) and Skerpioen (chenin blanc and palomino) are two of South Africa’s long-time and highly-regarded field blends dating back to the early 20th century.

Consulting winemaker, Duncan Savage with Brookdale winemaker, Kiara Scott

What’s the attraction of field blends today? I asked Jaco Engelbrecht, viticulture consultant to Brookdale Estate at the launch. ‘It’s something different and fun,’ he jokingly offers, adding, more seriously, the opportunity offered when starting the property from scratch and owner, Tim Rudd bought into the idea. There are two field blend vineyards, one of 16 different white varieties covering 2.3ha, the other of 20 different red varieties of 2.8ha. In neither is the varietal make-up disclosed, though it’s clear, at least after tasting the white wine, that varieties compatible with the warmer Paarl area have been selected, ‘but no viognier’, Jaco grins.

The question of when to harvest was an issue winemaker, Kiara Scott and consultant, Duncan Savage had to tackle on a trial and error basis the first year. In future, decisions will be made easier through experience and, perhaps, the vines ripening closer together.

Trial and error have produced a charming first wine, Brookdale Sixteen 2021. It conveys a sense of style – effortless in its textural breadth, flavours (rather than fruit) of grapes relishing warmer climes without losing their innate freshness. I like the idea there’s no varietal disclosure, as this makes one focus on the wine as a whole. Unfortunately, the first vintage has already sold out; only one barrel was made but Kiara assures there’s considerably more of this year’s wine.

One other benefit, which must be back of mind for the Brookdale team and anyone who establishes a multi-varietal vineyard, is climate change. At least some of the many varieties act as a hedge against this. Then one never underestimates the entrepreneurial spirit of today’s winemakers; field blends are another innovation to keep the buzz of excitement in South Africa front of mind.

Other South African producers and their field blends will be discussed in a follow-up piece.

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3 thoughts on “Growing together

  1. Lovely bit of research – field blends can lead to a precision in winemaking where the winemakers are sufficiently skilled. I was fascinated by your article and by visiting some of the SA winemakers doing similar things, most particularly Sijnn.

    1. Thanks Mark. It’s instructive to learn which producers are making bona fide field blends, ie inter-planted, multi-varietal vines, harvested and vinified together. I did ask David Trafford about Sijnn, who confirmed it is not a field blend. For those purists, I think it’s a case of watch this space, as the quality already achieved by Kiara/Duncan at Brookdale, Rudger at Stark Condé (despite not being an absolute field blend) and, of course Eben with his two Ouwingerds wines illustrates the exciting future possibilities.

      1. I guess for those of us who are less schooled in the finer distinctions, it would be useful to have a ready reckoner as to what constitutes a field blend compared with the likes of Sijnn where terroir and appropriate blending are also key to the quality of the wine. I’m fascinated with the subject and what better guru to explain the differences between a field blend and to sort of wine that Ms Haasbroek is aiming for

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