Oregon winemakers test blending in the vineyard

December 21, 2018 

Some think all great wine is made in the cellar – processed, fermented, blended and bottled under the careful watch of the winemaker. But some of Oregon’s most innovative winemakers are learning to relinquish some control to create the complex, spontaneous and sometimes unexpected results known as field blends.

With field blends, different types of grapes are grown, picked and fermented together regardless of variety, clone or perceived ripeness. Nurtured along gently by the winemaker, the wine actually blends itself in the field weaving the different varieties, soil types, elevation and harvest conditions into a complex result, long before it reaches the winery’s crushpad.

Luisa Ponzi, winemaker of Ponzi Vineyards, defines the technique she uses as Clonal Massale, which is a variation of the old-world technique Selection Massale (a French term for the practice of replanting new vineyards with cuttings from exceptional old vines from the same or nearby property). Ponzi’s Avellana Vineyard was planted to over 27 clones (Dijon and Heritage), a percentage of each clone literally blended in the field.

Luisa believes, “Each clone has a personality. When many are combined in a single block, the multitude of characteristics naturally brings complexity and dimension to the wines. By planting these clones at random, like wildflowers, it further relinquishes the question of clone, and focuses completely on the terrior of the site.”

Initially, the varying ripening times, morphology, and general mystery over ideal pick time was unsettling for Luisa. But after working with this vineyard for a decade, she’s come to realize that it’s less about flavor development or chemistry, and more about walking the rows and tasting and looking at the fruit. She says, “There’s a point where you just close your eyes and pick.” She admits she loves that relinquishment of complete control and trusts in the site and this variability of clonal expression, to bring the balance and layers of flavor and structure that make great Pinot. And though she says she would not suggest this method for winemakers who thrive on control, it does suit her general philosophy of setting things up for success and then getting out of the way as much as possible.

For the Ponzis, field blends were something of an accidental discovery. Their Abetina Vineyard, with 22 Pinot Noir clones was part of an Oregon State University clonal test site in the 70’s, and Ponzi Vineyards’ founder, Dick Ponzi, diligently kept this test going for years. After the research was concluded, Dick began fermenting these clones together. According to Luisa, “This was our first indication that the whole was better than the parts, and Abetina remains the jewel of our cellar year after year.”

Walter Scott Wines is also a proponent of field blends. Their X Novo Vineyard is planted to 15 different clones of Chardonnay (Heritage and Dijon), that results in uniquely expressive and unforgettable wines. According to Erica Landon of Walter Scott, “Clones ripen at different paces and have different personalities. When you have multiple clones in a block, you have them all translating that site with different voices. When picked together, you have some riper and some less ripe, and they come together to balance each other out and create a more complex wine. For us, it expresses what the site has to say more completely.”

After traveling through Spain and Portugal, John House and Ksenija Kostic House of Ovum Wines realized the most exciting wines came from vineyards that were planted to multiple varieties and then co-fermented. It occurred to them that many of Oregon’s vineyards share the same macro-climate yet have different soil types. John thought, “If they were picked at the right time, and allowed to spontaneously ferment together, perhaps the final wine could be as exciting as what we discovered in Iberia.”

Ovum’s Big Salt is the culmination of fruit from six vineyards located throughout Oregon, reaching as far south as Cave Junction, however it’s precisely that diversity that John says yields complexity to the wine. Big Salt is about capturing Oregon’s cool climate and geographic diversity in a bottle.

Brianne Day of Day Wines also talks about how creating field blends means giving up some control to allow for the full natural expression of a site. Her inspiration came from Jean-Michel Deiss in Alsace, France, who very convincingly advocated for obtaining a true expression of terroir through co-fermenting all of the varieties grown on a particular site. Day recalls, “He was adamant about not even knowing through any means of calculation, the percentages of the varieties. Literally tuning out that aspect of the process and picking and fermenting the ‘field.’”

That experience was a major influence on Brianne’s style. With her Running Bare and Hock & Deuce wines, she came to notice that the blend becomes more harmonious and knitted together when fermented together in a way that she didn’t believe could be achieved when blending happens later on, after élevage (the French winemaking term for the art of raising a wine, from harvest through bottling). She now makes all her blends, whether sourced from one vineyard or more, through co-fermentation.

Through experimentation, many winemakers are finding mother nature can create more depth and complexity than they can create by their own hand. John says, “Giving up winemaking controls to allow the wine to find its natural harmony is bound to create complex results, assuming you start with the right ingredients—the right fruit.” Which all starts in the field.

TAMARA BELGARD is a freelance writer, based in Portland, Ore., is a regular contributor to www.satiatepdx.com and several northwest publications.

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