Written by Clifford Roberts; Photography Johan Viljoen
Wine can be an intensely complex subject for a newcomer, but a whole new level opens with the first time you need to ask: what is a field blend?
Traditionally when the world blend is used, it generally means wine varieties are harvested and vinified separately in the winery before the winemaker starts mixing them. These grapes come from vineyards dedicated exclusively to one variety each.
Field blends, however, occur where vineyard blocks were planted with different varieties in one block. A chenin blanc vine may for example be planted alongside a semillon vine, in the same vineyard. A field blend wine is then made from different grape varieties that are grown, harvested and fermented together in the same vineyard.
There are various reasons why farmers may plant mixed varieties alongside each other, and why it occurred more in the past than today. They certainly never wondered what is a field blend. Some early farmers may simply have not been able to identify the differences between vines; or, focused simply on producing fruit. They may have also wanted to test different varieties under specific conditions.
Why are field blend wines not more common?
It’s not difficult to understand why it would never be the presiding fashion. For one thing, varieties have their own characteristics. Managing their vulnerabilities and peculiarities such as skin thickness, ripening time and predisposition to rot is easier when done en masse than vine by vine.
Some producers still value the tradition and authenticity of field blends and believe they can express the terroir and character of a vineyard in a unique way. It’s will also not come as a surprise that with the Swartland’s many registered heritage vineyards, it’s a place where field blends are revered too.
As writer Tim James points out in quoting viticulturist Jaco Engelbrecht, “mono[culture] means boring”. And Swartland wine growers are anything but boring.
In his 2019 report for Winemag.co.za, he mentions Jaco’s association with Eben Sadie who’s “already planted a few such vineyards (some completely mixed up, some with the different varieties in rows), and more are on the way.”
Two of Sadie’s well-known field blends are the Skerpioen whose old vineyards lie near St Helena Bay on the West Coast; and, ‘T Voetpad. The latter wine’s brochure says the vineyard was “presumably planted to supply the farmer and his neighbours”.
“Its 1.4 hectares host varieties established in the Cape since the early days of European settlement, with most of the planting done between 1887-1928, and all of the vines grow on their own roots.”
The wine is a field blend of grapes all picked together in one morning and comprise Semillon Blanc, Semillon Gris, Palomino, Chenin Blanc and Muscat d’ Alexandrie.
Are field blend wines easier to make?
Naturally, the concept of a field blend may create a perception of laissez-faire, but they’re in fact far from easy to make. They require careful management of the vineyard and the fermentation process. The grapes must ripen at the same time, or at least within a reasonable range, to ensure balance and harmony in the wine. The co-fermentation of different varieties also poses some challenges, as they have different characteristics and behaviours. However, when done well, field blends can create wines that are complex, layered and distinctive.
Other Swartland wineries keeping the field blend tradition alive include Johan “Stompie” Meyer, who has planted a mixed vineyard on Piket-bo-berg. Production of this wine is set to begin next year.
At Nativo winery between Malmesbury and the Riebeek Valley, a new field blend is being released in coming weeks. “[We have a block of bush vines that are mixed and matched: a bit of Chenin, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc,” explains Kiki Hughes of Hughes Family Wines that owns Nativo. “It got this way because when some of the vines died, we replanted between the survivors. “It’s [very hard] to keep track of which is which. So, we left them, and we harvest just like that, all at the same time.”
As a result, some grapes are slightly underripe, offering more acidity and freshness, while others might be slightly overripe, giving more pineapple, pear syrup and honey flavours, says Kiki.
“The grapes are pressed and vinified together as a single unit, and delicately aged in oak.”
The wine’s launch will be advertised on its website and social media channels.
It will certainly be one of the latest releases in this category, which may seem like yet another difficult concept to understand in the making of wine. However, field blends are one of the ways that wine becomes even more interesting. Mixing up vines in the vineyard won’t replace the modern way of winemaking, but it does offer a different experience of how fruit can be expressed in a bottle. If you’ve ever wondered what is a field blend, now you know!