First published in Issue 49 2015

Some of the world’s most exciting wines come from mixed vines, but what makes them so special? Margaret Rand poses fascinating and urgent questions relating not only to field blends but to our very definition of terroir and varietal expression and the complex relationship between them

In the High and Far-Off Times, O Best Beloved, all vines lived together. The Riesling lived with the Pinot and the Touriga lived with the Mourisco and nobody minded very much.

Presently the Winemaker, who was a man of infinite-resource-and-sagacity, came along on a Monday morning and said to the vines, "Vines, it is time to be Modern. You must all learn to be yourselves." And the vines said, "O Winemaker, how do we become Modern?" And the Winemaker said, "Pinot, you must learn to be Pinot. Mourisco, you must learn to be Mourisco." And one by one he took them all and he separated them and he made them be themselves.

Well, the above may not be Kipling, but it's a reasonable Just So précis of the past 100 years of viticulture. Or less, in some countries: It was in the 1970s that Portugal began the massive process of restructuring its vineyards-first identifying what was in them and then replanting them, block by laborious block. It was then that the Port shippers became more active in the Douro and bought more land there and started questioning what they found: Why are there so many different varieties? White vines mixed with red must be a bad thing, surely? So, they did what modern people do and took action. Years of detailed studies reduced the grape mix to just five, each of which was reckoned to earn its place in the blend, and the others, which were too pale, too insipid, too rustic, too whatever, were jettisoned. The five winners were Touriga Nacional, Tourigal Francesa, Tinta Cão, Tinta Barocca, and Tinta Roriz, and they were planted in neat blocks on the new bulldozed patamares terraces that were funded by World Bank loans.

Quality rose. Winemaking improved in all the usual ways, lagares began to look dated, and a little while later the quality of the fortifying spirit improved as well, as winemakers were able to choose it for themselves. Port was on an upward trajectory. Says David Guimaraens, technical director and head winemaker at The Fladgate Partnership, "Port became bigger and fruitier, but it became more the same."

Now Guimaraens is in love with mixed vineyards. And he's not alone. Mixed vineyards are a cult not just in the Douro but also in Alsace, in Vienna, and indeed all over the wine world. Not that everybody loves them, however: Véronique Dauss of Château Phélan Ségur has a mixed plot in her vineyards and dislikes it intensely. You have to mark each variety and pick them separately, she says; the idea that they're better together cuts no ice with her.

Because this is the point: Lovers of mixed vineyards maintain that they make different wine to varieties cultivated, picked, and fermented separately. In California, Paul Draper of Ridge found that if he planted pure Zinfandel, it took ten years and half the crop to get wine good enough for Lytton or Geyserville. "But if I planted mixed vineyards, it took six or seven years, and the wine was more complex and could go into the main wine. Now I always interplant."

Over to our man in Vienna, or one of them. Fritz Wieninger's father, Franz, loved his mixed vineyards and the resulting wine, known as Gemischter Satz. But Fritz took over in 1999 and just didn't believe in Gemischter Satz. "It had a bad reputation then. Only Franz Mayer was flying the flag for it, and I thought it was from the past. But the vineyard looked good, it was trained well, and I thought I wouldn't replant it before trying one vintage. It's very mixed, and I marked each variety, and picked a few hundred kilos of each separately, and made the rest as Gemischter Satz. Then I tasted them in the cellar. The Welschriesling wasn't bad; the Grüner Veltliner was very good; the Pinot Blanc was great, quite Alsace. Then I tasted the Gemischter Satz, expecting nothing, and I was overwhelmed. It was pure terroir. It was like Meursault without oak-very Burgundian. I knew immediately that Franz Mayer was right. And I thought, I have a great wine, and I can't sell it." ("But," he adds with satisfaction, "I did sell it.")

Timing is of the essence

There are several elements in this equation. Co-fermentation is obviously one, but what actually constitutes a mixed vineyard is another. Must the grapes be planted at random, or is planting by rows just as good? What about planting in small blocks? How many varieties? And why is a mix of varieties better at reflecting terroir than just one?

Obviously all must be picked together, and that is the first sticking point for many growers. Much of the viticultural work of recent decades has focused on picking everything at optimum ripeness; few believe that such a thing is possible in a mixed vineyard. You have to accept some underripeness and/or some overripeness; the question is, Is this a good thing? Those who like it say it is; but some go further and say that vines planted together ripen together-or at least closer together than they do if planted separately.

The most extreme view is that held by Jean-Michel Deiss. He states that in his mixed vines in Altenberg de Bergheim, "All ripen together and flower together." Down in Gigondas, Julien Bréchet of Domaine des Bosquets finds that the difference in ripening is less than you'd expect in his co-planted vineyard of Mourvèdre, Syrah, and Grenache. Twenty days' difference would be normal; the actual difference, he says, is eight days.

Why should this happen? It is accepted now that plants communicate with each other-via soluble compounds exchanged by root systems and mycorrhizal fungi connected to those roots, or by emitting chemicals-even, it is suggested, by nanomechanical vibrations. But plant biologist and wine writer Dr Jamie Goode points out that the cues that determine flowering dates are "things like day length, temperature, light intensity, and so on, and are independent of the variety of the neighboring vine."

Deiss, though, maintains that "it's simple. If you have superficial planting for high yields, for beautiful vines and big grapes, then the genes express themselves so that they ripen at different times. If you plant deep, for terroir expression, the vineyard decides the moment of maturation."

Others would say that you can't "plant deep." Marc Hugel of Hugel says that "95 percent of the life of the vine is in the first 50cm [20in] of roots; a few roots go deeper, but they don't bring much." Few would agree that there is a way of planting that will suppress varietal character. However, the clue might be in what Deiss says about the choice of varieties: "It's not a question of the number of varieties, but harmony. Music is not a question of the number of notes, but of harmony. You must put grapes together that are able to act in harmony." He means in harmony with the terroir, but that might be another way of saying more or less what Viennese growers say, which is that you need to put together vines that share the same corridor of ripening time. Paul Kiefer of Mayer certainly doesn't claim that vines ripen closer together if they're planted together. "I pick by the latest ripening variety to avoid green flavors," he says. "I have a lot of Riesling, and that's the last to ripen, so I have some overripe grapes, and there can be botrytis on the earlier ones. Now when I plant mixed vineyards, I choose varieties that ripen closer together-I want them to ripen almost at the same time. Sauvignon Blanc with Riesling is very difficult, because Sauvignon is one of the first, and Riesling is four to five weeks later, by which time the Sauvignon might be gone."

Legacies of complexity

But of course, it's not just a matter of ripening. Flowering times have a big effect: Different varieties hit different weather at flowering, Kiefer points out. As a result, the final blend is different every year, according to which varieties set the best crop. Deiss says that the proportions of each variety in the vineyard don't matter. "It's not a question of proportions. I choose with a knowledge of what the terroir needs."

For Deiss, mixed vineyards are all about expressing terroir. "It's not possible to understand if you think that expression of the terroir is just a matter of the juxtaposition of the various cépages," he says. "It's not just the sum of different grapes. Terroir dominates the character of the cépages."

The view from Vienna is slightly different. The choice of grapes traditionally reflected the needs of the grower; you'll find Pinot varieties on the chalk of the Nüssberg vineyard, yes, but you'll also find Traminer or Muskateller for roundness, and Riesling for freshness. In Nüssberg, Fritz Weininger has a mix of Pinot Blanc, Traminer, Riesling, Rotgipfler, Zierfandler, Grüner Veltliner, Welschriesling, Neuberger, and Silvaner; in Bisamberg, Rainer Christ has Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, Neuburger, Weissburgunder, Traminer, Roter Veltliner, Welschriesling, Müller-Thurgau, Sauvignon Blanc, and some others that are unidentified. Many of these vineyards are old-75 years in the case of Christ's Bisamberg plot. Says Jutta Ambrositsch, "Modern Gemischter Satz usually has fewer varieties, maybe six. The most complex wines are old-school." Her Grinzing vineyard has 20.

In the past, all these growers had their family Heurigen, where they sold their own wine; many still do have Heurigen. It's easy to see that in such a close-knit, competitive environment (every other building in the Vienna winegrowing suburb of Grinzing seems to be a restaurant or a Heurigen), such highfalutin notions as expressing the terroir was not the point: You had to get the customers in by serving wine that simply tasted nice, and you had to have wine to serve even if frost or rot had hit half your vines. Mixing vines was merely an insurance policy. The growers talk now about expressing the vineyard, but they're expressing it through grapes chosen by their parents and grandparents for more pragmatic reasons. When they plant new Gemischter Satz vineyards now (and new ones have only been planted since the wine has been fashionable, for the past 10 or 12 years), they base their grape choices on their existing vineyards. Those purely practical mixes are now enshrined as the signature of each house; they've become Heritage.

Mixed vines; mixed views

Over in the Douro, Guimaraens has another take on the pragmatism behind grape mix. "It was considered random for many years, but the more I work with our vinhas velhas-in Junco, Eira Velha, and Vargellas, vineyards planted in the first 30 years of the 20th century-the more I understand. There are three or four grape varieties that make up 60-80 percent of the vinhas velhas blocks of the Douro. They are Roriz, Touriga Francesa, Barocca, and Amarela; it varies according to the region and the orientation. Then there are another five to ten in smaller proportions. These vary according to who planted them. The British school was fewer varieties and a reason for mixing (and often Alicante Bouschet, which they brought in to replace elderberry); the Portuguese school was lots of varieties." Quinta do Crasto's Maria Teresa vineyard, for example, over 100 years old and Portuguese-planted, has 47 varieties in it. António Magalhães, head of viticulture at The Fladgate Partnership, adds that in the British-planted vineyards, the owner chose the varieties; in the Portuguese-planted ones, the vineyard manager chose, and he probably chose for big yields and big bunches.

Not all mixed vineyards were brilliant. In California, Paul Draper points out that only the exceptionally good old vineyards survived Prohibition. In the Douro, Christian Seely uprooted and replanted some mixed vineyards at Quinta de Noval. Would David Guimaraens have liked them? "No, I pulled them out because they weren't very good," Seely explains. Even the ones he didn't have the heart to uproot are never Vintage quality, he says.

Before phylloxera, Guimaraens says, there were two main varieties in the Douro: Touriga Nacional (then called plain Touriga) and Bastardo. The replanting after phylloxera introduced new varieties, and the original Touriga was sent to nurseries in France for propagation. There it was crossed with Mourisco (these two, he says, were the last to die), and the result was called Touriga Francesa (now officially called Touriga Franca by everyone except Guimaraens), with the original Touriga being renamed National Touriga, or Tourigal Nacional. But the growers preferred to replant with the new improved Touriga Francesa, so Touriga Nacional is rare in old post-phylloxera plantings.

Guimaraens believes that not only was the choice of vines thoroughly considered, but so was how to plant them. "There was clearly an intention to plant particular vines in particular spots, but over time it has become more random." So, the convoluted topography of the Douro, where the soil doesn't change all that much but where the exposure changes almost from meter to meter, was, he believes, taken into account when choosing exactly where to plant each variety. Would it be feasible to plant a mixed vineyard now in the same way?

Crasto could, but probably wouldn't. Says vineyard manager Manuel Lobo, "If Maria Teresa died overnight, we could replant the same vines in the same places. We have a map and we have the cuttings." But Miguel Roquette, the overseas face of Crasto, says that in those circumstances they might replant the same field blend, but in rows. "It would be replanting the same vineyard, but a new generation."

A call for comparison

Is a vineyard really mixed if you plant by rows or, as Guimaraens has been doing lately, plant by small blocks? He's a great believer in co-fermentation and will pick everything together; but if he wants to omit certain blocks, he can. In Vienna, too, some growers, when they replant, will throw all the cuttings into a box and pick them out at random, like Paul Kiefer, or will plant in rows or in small blocks. "There's no one recipe," says Georg Konigsbauer of Cobenzl. One day, one pick is the only rule; and everything goes into the fermentation vat, unless it's selected out for rot. Rainer Christ says that planting in rows doesn't have the same effect: "There's less biodiversity in the soil, different microbial life, and it's more of a monoculture." Can you taste the difference in the glass? Probably not, but Christ believes that vine health benefits from a complete mix.

Over in California, Paul Draper agrees. "Even within a relatively small block, the soils can vary. And if there is shade on one side and not on the other, temperatures may vary slightly, as well as [there being] possible differences in moisture in the soil within the block. So mixing the varieties throughout the block is important."

Does a number of grape varieties express a vineyard better than just one? "It's not music with just one note," says Deiss. "To write an article with one word would be difficult. You need a bigger vocabulary to express the whole idea." At this point, of course, one mentions Pinot Noir in Burgundy, but Deiss has been here before. "It is wrong to think that Pinot Noir is just one variety. There are 350 different types of Pinot, and they appear spontaneously in a vineyard because of mutation. Pinot Noir is the grape most capable of expressing terroir because of this diversity. A vineyard planted with one clone of Pinot Noir would not express the terroir fully."

Pinot-growing readers of The World of Fine Wine can pick up that particular gauntlet if they want to. The question is, What, actually, is the difference in the glass? There's no doubt that field blends taste different-less varietal, obviously; more harmonious and integrated. Nobody would argue that you can get the same effect by picking and fermenting varieties separately and then blending. Says Draper, "If grapes reach the fermenter well mixed throughout the block, they will be better mixed in the fermentation itself and will be better integrated." That makes sense. But is it terroir we're tasting in the wine or the chemical effects of co-fermentation?

What, actually, does terroir taste like? "Terroir expression" is a splendidly vague term, but the word "winey" might be more accurate for co-fermented wines and would make fewer assumptions. Goode says the effect of co-fermentation is simply down to different mixes of flavor precursors in the vat, as well as the mix of ripeness levels. "There's nothing magical happening here," he insists. But of course the result can seem magical: more transcendent, more vinous. But more "terroir"? Few winemakers wanting to express a particular terroir would these days want to do so by mixing grapes of different ripeness; most are obsessed with picking everything at the perfect moment. If two diametrically opposed courses of action will both produce terroir expression, then either the time of picking doesn't much matter, or our definition of terroir expression needs to be rethought.

There's no doubt that field blends are interesting-and not just as relics of the past. Co-fermentation might even become the Next Big Thing. But what we need-to see whether the source of the complexity and wineyness of these wines derives more from the vineyard or the vat-is a comparison of wines from mixed vineyards, co-fermented, with wines co-fermented from separate vineyards. Is there a winemaker of infinite-resource-and-sagacity who'd like to run with that one?