Field Blends Are Wines for Late Summer
Field Blend. Sounds enchanting, doesn't it? One of those lush concatenations of sounds and syllables, an evocation of moods, a package of basic, essential things. All kinds of wonderful stuff. Makes me think of mown grass on a sunny August afternoon, that moist, chewy smell. Sleeping dogs, and the smell of them, too. Corn on the cob. Flags. The ocean at dawn. Rain falling sweetly down through the leaves of a familiar tree. Field blend. An honest idea. An appealing notion. An enchanting sound.
A shame, as far as I'm concerned. Ever since I began seriously drinking wine, I've been a big fan of what are now commonly referred to as proprietary blends. These are inexpensive combinations of various red-wine grapes, grapes ignobly (but honorably) grown all over California (or Australia, or South Africa or France, the original Land of the Rotgut Blend), rather than cultivated in the vineyards of a single estate. Pay more than $15 for one of these and you've paid too much. I like the eight-to-12-dollar range, although some Aussie blends retail for as little as six dollars. Proprietary blends and field blends are not exactly the same thing. Field blends, purely defined, are pretty rare?you almost have to go tooling around Sonoma County in search of wineries that still produce them, mainly for local consumption. Proprietary blends, by contrast, exhibit the ethos of field blends, but they are produced from grapes that hail from geographically more diverse regions. A field blend was usually just that?a blend composed of grapes from a single vineyard's collection of parcels. Proprietary blends go out under the label of the winery that produced the wine (hence the term "proprietary"), but the grapes that contributed to the blend were, in all likelihood, picked elsewhere?perhaps far, far away. These blends are a vital aspect of the U.S. wine industry; they keep plenty of growers in business.
So, anyway?I dig field blends, or wines that aspire to the field-blend style. It's interesting how, in the winemaker's craft, blending can cut in such precisely opposite directions, in terms of quality, yet still deliver wonderful results. I'm talking here about the legendary?and extremely risky?blending practices employed for centuries now in Bordeaux. As a colleague of mine once pointed out, in Bordeaux, it's all about the chateau?the name on the label. Since in Bordeaux several different varietals are cultivated, winemakers have the advantage of choosing, for each vintage, the grapes that they believe can be blended into the best wine. There are patterns: in some regions, merlot is favored as the base grape; in others, cabernet sauvignon. Some stick to cabernet-and-merlot combinations, others introduce a little cabernet franc, a little petit verdot. Depends. Blending decisions are made at various stages of the winemaking process, and for a first-growth chateau, the choice of percentages is possibly the most important of the entire vintage. Choose wisely, after a good harvest, and you will have a potentially great?and valuable?wine on your hands.
Obviously, proprietary blends are a different story. But not so different. One of my favorite, Bonny Doon's Ca'del Solo Big House Red ($9)?a blend of more than six varietals?has been hit or miss in the case of my last few bottles. Sometimes, so big-bodied and exuberant and peppery that I have thought about investing in a case. Other times, fizzy and harsh, far too tannic, unpleasant, provoking me to vow never to buy another bottle. A sturdier performer has been Marietta's California Old Vine Red Lot Number Twenty Three ($11), a wine that proprietor Chris Bilbro explicitly compares to a classic California field blend. I love this wine and have for several bottles' worth. The alcohol level, like that of the Big House, is fairly high?13.5 percent?but the wine, despite the inclusion of a quantity of zinfandel, doesn't taste "hot"?certainly not as hot as the Ca'del Solo. Additionally, the Marietta Old Vine is a rich and complex red, dense with blackberries up front that give way to layers of secondary flavors and spicy highlights. It's all you could want in a cheap red blend. And I'm not saying the Big House sucks or anything, just that the bottlings have been inconsistent. But that's something you must deal with where blends are concerned. Neither of these wines is, to my palate, a California techno-blend, either. Examples of this style of blend include Francis Coppola's "Rosso," or numerous Aussie red blends, both of which exhibit two main movements: fruit up front, followed by a smooth texture devoid of tannic roughness. Tannin usually indicates, in a great wine, a "tightness" that implies the vintage was built to age; in lesser bottlings, crudeness of technique. Rusticity. Sounds bad, right? Wrong. Rusticity, at least in my case, appeals. It's like leaving the skins on your mashed potatoes. Techno-blends strive to eliminate excessive tannin, smoothing the wine out, if you will.
So take my advice here and start looking around for some field blends. The summer is waning and all those fresh, clean and refreshing whites are, once autumn appears, going to seem thin, a bit light, with hearty harvest fare.
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