Greg Sherwood MW: In praise of field blends
By Greg Sherwood, 7 June 2023
It certainly is fascinating how the diverse wine styles of the world can be matched with the countries own varied histories, cultures and climates. I recently had the honour of being one of the guest speakers at a fantastic Dan Nicholl Foundation fund raiser dinner here in London which was in turn raising funds for the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation. One of the wines generously donated for the evening by the Stark Condé winery in the Jonkershoek Valley, was their white Field Blend 2021 – a beautiful white wine fashioned around a large 54% dollop of Roussanne together with supporting components of 30% Chenin Blanc, 9% Verdelho and 7% Viognier.
Now you might well ask what is so special about that? Sounds like a good classic Cape Mediterranean-styled white blend which South African producers do very well? Well, yes, of course in essence that is what it is. But the more interesting part about this wine is how it is styled around a field blend specifically, which is when a wine is made up of two or more types of grapes, where the grapes are planted together in the same vineyard, brought in together at harvest and co-fermented together in the winery. The dinner guests were fascinated to hear the differences between a normal white blend and a field blend, and more specifically, the historical roots of how wines were produced like this for centuries all around Europe before modern viticulture started to fashion its grape growing around monoculture, or simply big blocks of the same grape variety, more often than not from the same clone.
But if a single vineyard is planted to multiple varieties, then the wines that are made from it will be a field blend. Every vineyard by default has its own unique set of characteristics — micro-climate, soil types, vine age, topography, etc. — and by trying to intervene as little as possible, producers are often able to craft wines unique to their specific vineyard site that hark back to a more pre-industrial winemaking era. Before there were varietal bottlings and modern cuvée blends, there were humble field blends and this ancient approach to winemaking was once the norm across much of the wine world.
Unsurprisingly, field blend wines are rarely boring or lacklustre as their whole raison d’etre was to ensure that the wines produced possessed sufficient ripeness, freshness and complexity through a mystical melange of grape varieties. One of my favourite field blend wines used to be produced by the Spanish winery Vina Sastre in the Ribera del Duero. One of their oldest Tempranillo vineyard blocks of over 100 years old had a Palomino vine planted after every 10 red vines. When picked all together, the Palomino would still be fresh and acidic, adding a wonderful vibrancy and lift to the final red wine. Sadly, the winery owner decided one day that the Ribera del Duero summers were too hot to drink red wine all day so broke with tradition and harvest the white Palomino grapes separately to make a chillable, quaffable white wine. The red blend was never the same again.
This week also saw the release of probably South Africa’s most famous field blend, the ‘T Voetpad 2022 white from Sadie Family Wines. The name means ‘The Footpath’ in Dutch, and comes from the name of Dirk Brand’s wheat and rooibos tea farm, where the rustic block of old vines is tucked away. Eben Sadie reckons this is surely the most isolated old vine vineyard in the country, presumably originally 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 to 1928, and all of the vines are grown on their own ungrafted ‘Franc de Pied’ roots.
‘T Voetpad is of course a field blend with all the varieties picked together in one morning’s harvest. After co-fermentation, the wine is left in casks and foudre for the entire first 12 months on the fine fermentation lees before being bottled unfiltered and unfined straight off its lees. This 2022 ‘T Voetpad is incredibly expressive, being a blend of Semillon Blanc, Semillon Gris, Palomino, Chenin Blanc and Muscat d’ Alexandrie.
If the ‘T Voetpad vineyard is one of the oldest in South Africa, the Brookdale Estate field blend white from Paarl has to be one of the youngest, planted circa seven years ago by English owner Tim Rudd under the guidance of Duncan Savage. When I enquired what exactly was planted in the vineyard, current head winemaker Kiara Scott was able to name all 16 varieties… including Chenin Blanc, Piquepoul, Verdejo, Clairette Blanche, Pinot Gris, Macbao, Grenache, Semillon, Roussanne, Vermentino, Marsanne, Petit Manseng, Albariño, Palomino, Chardonnay and Grillo. But she did confess, with a smile on her face, that owner Tim Rudd insisted on cutting off all the identification tags after the vines were planted so that the final wine was truly a blind field blend.
In a wonderful kind of way, sometimes progress is best expressed through the reinvigoration of traditional ways and means. South Africa makes some of the most striking white wines in the world and none are more impressive than our beautiful white blends. But there is just a small chance that we might be able to produce something even more authentic and complex with the use of red and white field blend plantings. I, for one, love the idea and look forward to seeing more producers releasing new wines following this stylistic philosophy.
- Greg Sherwood was born in Pretoria, South Africa, and as the son of a career diplomat, spent his first 21 years traveling the globe with his parents. With a Business Management and Marketing degree from Webster University, St. Louis, Missouri, USA, Sherwood began his working career as a commodity trader. In 2000, he decided to make more of a long-held interest in wine taking a position at Handford Wines in South Kensington, London, working his way up to the position of Senior Wine Buyer. Earlier this year, he moved across to South African specialist merchant Museum Wines to become the Fine Wine Director. He qualified as a Master of Wine in 2007.
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