Untangling Field Blends

We made our first white wine this year at Brash Higgins, which is very exciting news, because it’s not as easy as it sounds. 2012 was a good year for whites in McLaren Vale, and many passes thru white varietal vineyards had me thinking this could be the year. For a long time I’ve been a fan of the traditional white field blends of Friuli in Italy and Alsatian winemaker Jean Michel Deiss; wines that are made from multiple varieties interplanted in one vineyard, red or white. It’s an old fashioned way of making wines, one frought with risk and headaches, and not done much anymore.
DeissThe grapes are picked on the same day and co-fermented together to create something wholly unusual and complex and a good representation of how the site may taste as a whole, rather than just as a single varietal. This business of co-fermenting different grapes together is absolutely fascinating to me. And the odds of a vineyard having a few different varieties on it all looking good at the same time is also a long shot, particularly in solar driven McLaren Vale. Most modern blended wines are vinified separately and blended only at bottling time, affording the wine maker the opportunity to taste the finished wines and mix them judiciously. Deiss argues that the correct grapes need to be used to showcase the way a site can be best expressed. Riesling, of course, is one of his main stays being from Alsace. The transparency of the varietal gives a clear impression of where it’s from.One grape he doesn’t mention, however, is semillon. Semillon, a complex white grape, is often blended with sauvignon blanc in blends around Bordeaux and the world, grown on its own in the Hunter and Barossa and elsewhere, yet is almost never paired with riesling. Why not?

bubbling barrel

So this year with the help of Peter Bolte, my viticulturist, I found myself walking the rows of many vineyards. We came to one high altitude site I had been to previously which made nice semillon in the Kangarilla foothills on Saddlebags Road. I never knew it had riesling planted on it as well until this year. Both varieties, growing like Siamese twins, were deliciously fresh, and, more importantly, coming on to ripeness at almost the same time. If this game isn’t about what’s in the vineyard, then I’ll just hang up the secateurs and go back to my day job at the car wash. Not knowing for sure what this “new” co-fermented wine will taste like is part of the adrenalin rush. Co-fermentation might seem old-fashioned and rigid, but some contemporary winemakers believe that combining different grapes during fermentation can produce wines that are better integrated, more seamless and perhaps more aromatic. The earlier you are in the process when marrying things together, the better they integrate.
Mixing the grapes at crush means the fermenting grapes have different levels of acid, tannin and sugar, and that in turn changes the rates and types of chemical reactions that take place during fermentation. When you combine grapes, you change the pH, and that pushes the tannin reactions. In the end you get a very different wine than you would by blending the separate varieties later.
When you blend varieties separately you get wines that you can control precisely, but when you co-ferment you get some added perfume characters that are sort of a melange of those grapes together that you don’t get in wines that are blended later.
If the mix of grapes is right, co-fermented wines can be brilliant, and as a field blend, we may have something even more extraordinary, something as individual and unique as a person. A one of a kind marriage of fruit and place DNA that can never be replicated. That’s a lot of info to disentangle, but at the end of the day field blends make pretty cool little wines to swirl around in your glass. Hope mine makes one some day, too.