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Complantation (field blends)


#1

While we were in Alsace last week, we tried a complantation (field blend) at Louis Sipp, that they are starting to make, called Haguenau. Martine Sipp-Kempf explained that it’s in part because it’s an interesting thing to do, and in part because it enables them to produce something unique - a way of distinguishing themselves from all of the other wine makers who produce single varietals. Field blends see the grapes from different varieties all harvested and vinified together. It adds a high degree of uncertainty and individuality to wines over the far more common means of making a blended wine by harvesting varieties and parcels when each is at optimum ripeness, and then blending the subsequent base wines. We’ve started to see them appearing at other producers, too.

We also went on a vineyard walk with the charismatic, articulate, opinionated and loquacious Jean-Michel Deiss. He’s a real pioneer of complantation in Alsace, though he would see it as returning to traditional vineyard practices, rather than introducing new ones. He was adamant that the duty of the winemaker is to produce an expression of their own individual terroir, and that complantation was the means of achieving this - in his view, putting the variety on the label works against this, as the consumer’s expectation is set by the variety and not by the location. It was interesting to hear him coming to a similar conclusion to Sipp from a different angle - he was full of idealism about the need to work with nature to produce a sustainable system and let it make its own unique product (and to be fair, he walks the walk, too); while the no less articulate but rather more succinct Martine was at least in part talking about commercial drivers. As an aside, she also commented that since becoming organic their vineyards seem to be less susceptible to the vagaries of the vintage, so they’re up for the working-with-nature thing too.

It’s an interesting trend, if it does indeed take root, and certainly a better one in my opinion than the increasing number of unsulfured wines that are appearing. (I’ve not yet had a decent white one, and aging the reds for more a few months seems to be a complete lottery.) It does raise a few questions for me, though. Not least is that there seem to be competing commercial pressures. On the one hand, consistency is king for the average consumer, who wants to know what they’re getting when they open the bottle, and this has been a criticism of Alsace wines - even with varietal labelling, you’re never quite sure what sweetness you’re getting when you pull the cork. That’s surely a driver away from making something distinctive, but is the problem for a winemaker that you get then caught up in a race to the bottom with varietals? Jean-Michel spoke at some length about the danger of low-density, high-yield winemaking where reducing cost is everything, and frequent replanting of vines results in single clones dominating, with a resultant monoculture. There’s quite a lot of this going on with the large co-ops, and his view is Alsace simply can’t compete with other countries on this, and so needs to come up with wines that can only be made there. One inevitable flipside is that prices for those wines are higher. Deiss’s wines are exceptional, but they are also some of the priciest in the region. The other flipside is that you’re back to the problem of not knowing what wine you’re buying.

Anyway, that’s a bit of a ramble, but I guess the question is, as a winemaking region, how do you find a balance between having a consistent enough style to attract a decent number of consumers, while having individual wines which are interesting in their own right? Thoughts?


Weekend drinking thread [31stMay-2nd June 2019]
#2

This is a fascinating topic - thanks for posting!

The winemaker that came to mind reading your post - was Dirk Niepoort. He seems to be championing field blends for both reds and whites; in interviews he will often refer to it as the traditional Portuguese way of making wines - and he’s quite critical of fellow Portuguese winemakers who rely heavily on international varieties and vinify their wine ‘by the book’ with minimal risk taking.

I have enjoyed virtually all his wines that I’ve tried this far (a drop in the ocean, considering all the wines he makes!), but I have no idea how he maintains consistency!

Perhaps there is a middle way between the uncompromising stance of people like Deiss, where this is the only style they consider making, and those who rely on more predictable varietal winemaking. A pragmatic combination of both? Some plots dedicated to single varietals, some to field blends with many varietals growing side by side…? Idealism can turn into dogma, so I am always a little wary of people like Deiss, though - like Niepoort - he’s definitely saying something valuable and worth hearing. Can’t really afford his wines on a regular basis, mind you, whereas it isn’t the case with Niepoorts wines.


#3

I think that there’s definitely room for a middle way, much like at Sipp. They’re putting out a field blend at a reasonable price, but there’s no intention there of stopping varietals. Deiss does make a few varietals too, but his heart is really in the blends.

Must seek out Dirk Niepoort’s wines - I haven’t tried those.


#4

He’s terrific! Both for blends (his easy drinking ‘entry level’ wines such as ‘Drink me’ Branco and Tinto) and for single varietal such as the 100% Baga he makes in Bairrada, which I thought was simply wonderful. His more ‘serious’ bottlings - the Redoma, Batuta and Concisco Dao I considered a treat, but they are pricier.


#5

Interesting thoughts, Rob, and a lot of them! Where to start?

I am far from convinced that you need complantation to show terroir to its fullest. Try selling that idea in Burgundy or Germany! But personally, as a terroir-sceptic, I try not to get too involved in that sort of discussion - I just try to listen and keep an open mind.

I am also sceptical when people talk about going back to traditional practices. When ever I have looked into the history of a wine-growing area, I see constant flux. You can go back to a particular point in time, but just to talk about tradition is usually nonsense.

Wines without added sulphites are an example. You rightly talk about them as a new trend. But go back a couple of centuries (I believe that is the right time scale, but would need to check) and ALL wines would have no added sulphites. So are they traditional?

But, as an idea, I am fine with field blends. Why not, if a producer wants to give it a go, and there is a market? There is no need for a whole region to do it - varietal wines are fine too IMO. Let the producer decide.

My view on sugar-levels in Alsace wines is more blunt. There should be a regional standard for indicating sweetness level on the label. Then the problem is solved as far as I am concerned. Other regions have different sugar levels in their wines, but you don’t hear people complaining about Vouvray for example.

I have always found consistency vs interest an interesting dilemma. In the UK consistency is indeed king for the average consumer, but they are hardly likely to be buying Alsace wine anyway. If they want consistency, let them drink Blossom Hill. At the other end of the spectrum is a certain type of geek for whom interest is (nearly) everything, and any variation in natural wine (for example) is seen as fun. And of course there is a lot of middle ground. So let’s keep the spectrum of consistency and interest, rather then arguing for one end or another. Again, let different producers in any particular region do what they want.

Incidentally, my view on natural wine generally is a lot more positive than yours, but perhaps that discussion is best kept to another time/thread?


#6

Another traditional on-trend field blend is Wiener Gemischter Satz. Have you tried that, Rob? I’m sure Noel Young could sell you some!


#7

Massive fan of Alsace wine, agree that Diess is a one off and too expensive for me, have tried his wines but never bought them. Impressive, unique wines that I’d explore more if I wasn’t budget conscious

My favourite relatively affordable Alsace field blend is the Mark Kreydenweiss Clos du Val d’ Eleon, which is 50/50 Riesling Pinot Gris. One of his Vins de Terroirs.
The amazing breadth of white wine available from Alsace is one of its great attractions. Edelzwicker style wines at the cheaper end such as the Cattin wine and the Societies’ Alsace are very good value as well.


#8

And of course, Hugel ‘revived’ the Gentil style (I remember seeing Etienne Hugel passionately speaking about the Gentil style, in a short film about Alsace wines), which apparenty is different to the Edelzwicker blend. But of course, it’s a tiny part of their production. The Gemischter Satz mentioned by @VinoVeritas is another fascinating example of the style, which seems to actually celebrate the fact that consistency is not part of the equation. But I am not sure it started as a commercial concern anyway.


#9

The concept of field blends is quite intriguing. One of the problems it comes up against is that many growers now consider that different varieties favour different soil types. How you map that onto field blend mixes is a bit problematic - surely if you are following a “terroir” sort of guiding principle, then you should be adjusting your cépage mix to follow that? Perhaps Marcel Deiss is doing that. But the wisdom of the ages sometimes doesn’t accord with newer insights such as that.

The second point relates to maturity profiles. Riesling changes its character dramatically over, say, 10 years or so. Pinot gris and gewurztraminer do change a bit but in rather different ways. My point then is that - depending on the proportions in your field blend - how it matures could be radically different from your neighbour’s field blend.

Having said that, I do enjoy some of these noble grape blends. Presumably at one time this corresponded with the idea of “edelzwicker”, but that descended into something else years ago. I’ve noticed that these noble variety blends are actually still popular in the northern, Bas-Rhin part of Alsace. But they are rarely straight complantations. Most growers would say that they choose grapes from different vineyards because they want to plant grapes where thay can best express themselves. Surely that is still a “terroir” interpretation?


#10

Some great points here.

  • Choice of varieties. Indeed, at some point, someone has made a choice about what to plant, and it’s probably (hopefully?) based on which ones will fare well in the terroir. Deiss would say that the terroir would override the variety - I don’t completely buy it. One example he gave was the Grand Cru Altenberg de Bergheim - he reckons that all wine grown there tastes just of Altenberg, and why bother labelling it with the variety? I’ve had varietals from other producers there, and they’ve been typical of both the terroir and the variety.

  • Tradition vs modernity. We shouldn’t fetishise tradition - progress is more often than not a good thing - but we also shouldn’t lose the good things that we did in the past. For me sulfites in wine are definitely a good thing - definitely another thread - but Deiss’s points about sustainability and avoiding monoculture are also well worth heeding.

  • Do you need complantation to express terroir? I’d say definitely not - back to the fact that someone has decided what to plant, at some point. That’s a human intervention, not nature.

  • Complantation vs Edelzwicker/Gentil. Both have their place, and there are some excellent blends (e.g. those mentioned by @NickFoster and @Inbar) . But in my experience, field blends tend to be much more interesting. That’s probably not intrinsic, but down to the fact that field blends are produced with the intention of making a higher end wine, and have more care put into them, while in Alsace, blended wines are aimed at the cheaper end of the market in the first place. It would be interesting to have someone try to make a properly high-end gentil - but I haven’t yet found anyone doing it.


#11

I find this such an odd assertion! What does ‘taste just of Altenberg’ actually mean? The soil? The aspect? The sunshine? The whole shebang?

Surely each grape varietal is a slightly different sort of ‘vehicle’ for the terrior? Each bringing its own unique set of characteristics to the mix?

It feels like he got carried away with his theory a bit in this instance… :thinking:


#12

Undoubtedly true generally, but there are honourable exceptions. As mentioned, they are more a thing in the north of the region, which is poorly represented in the UK. But I would mention the noble blends of Domaines Pfister and Loew as starting points. You will probably have to make a trip to Alsace for this sort of research!


#13

There are some great producers in the Bas-Rhin. Thanks for the tip about these two - I shall have to visit!


#14

For Deiss, it’s the whole shebang - soil, aspect, microclimate, flora, fauna, etc. And you can definitely sense Grand Crus commonalities in wines of different varieties grown on the same terroirs. But I do agree that he takes it a bit far - both variety and terroir are important.


#15

There’s also the Trovium blend at Mochel. That’s more about using oak on pinot grapes, so it slightly slipped my mind. But it is nevertheless a high quality blend made in the Bas-Rhin!


#16

It is all to easy to get bogged down in the current rush to embrace the likes of terroir as something that imparts a special ‘gift’ to the wines planted in the area described.
Whatever the terroir, an all encompassing word for climate soil terrain of a particular region and which the French explain as a sense of place, a flowery way of saying a wine tastes of that place, the definition is pretty subjective.

Soil the one thing they bang on about is after all as with all agriculture simply a growing medium, even in one small area it can be very variable but serve the same purpose, the schists the pebbles the gravels all have to drain well and contain water without the containment the grapes do ripen or grow, individual sites do vary but little makes a difference as with the claims of heat retention for certain rock based soils, scientific research has showed this to be bunkum, yet still articles in awe of certain sites and growers that use them gush the attributes of the site as set in stone !

Field blends, where do I start, they also have become the trendy new/old way to produce a blended wine, that in essence is all it is, the only difference is the vines all come from one plot, a cheap and easy way of growing various varieties to be at hand when harvesting, the fact that some growers have turned this into some new terroir based experience is not really founded in fact, blends of grapes grown in different areas is done for a reason, different grapes appreciate different climate, that cannot be achieved other than in a very narrow band of grape varieties on a single site.

The new traditionalists driven by the non intervention styles of wine making are simply reversing many of the techniques now used in wine making, is it better, what’s in the bottle tells the story, but why reverse all that has been achieved since Emile Peynaud started the revolution in the way wine was made and for the better.

The combination of science working with nature is what makes good wine or any other crop, to think of growing grapes is any different from growing any other agricultural crop is nonsense the same rules apply, nature can and is assisted by drainage schemes in more difficult soils for example and irrigation , much frowned on by traditionalists, in other areas, all are trying to reach the same end ideal growing conditions for a fruit.

Complantation is no more than an old way of growing a mixed field of different varieties being wrapped up in a word to give it credence, if it makes, or they can make decent wine that way, good, all for variety, though without consistency they have problem in selling, but there is nothing wondrous or cutting edge about it.


#17

Yes, Mochel is one of the good growers in the Bas Rhin, and to the Society’s credit they do offer Mochel wines in a limited way.

@cerberus, it was good to see a counterblast against some of the more posturing aspects of complantation! I suppose the one thing I might query is the part about soils being simply a growing medium. They are that of course, but they bring different minerals, offer different microflora and so on. The extent to which fruits growing in these different soils may vary in flavour is the thing here I think.

Just looking beyond grapes for a moment, the picture varies. Some fruits don’t seem much affected at all, such as plums. Raspberries, on the other hand, gain or lose certain flavours according to the soils you grow them in. They all taste of raspberries, but the added aromaticities are the things I refer to.

So, as for grapes, I think different varieties are able to respond to different soils, situations etc. in different ways. Syrah/shiraz - to take an example - actually tastes different when grown on alkaline soils. It also responds, expectedly, to growing temperatures, though it is a bit surprising to discover that it can ripen well in fairly cool temperatures provided it receives the requisite level of insolation. It tastes different again though, as different flavour components develop differently. So I do think that different locations can offer different flavours, depending as always on how the fruit is grown and vinified.

Having said all that, I too am a bit leery about a lot of this complantation talk, even though I do enjoy the good ones.


#18

When put like that I’d have to agree. I see no need to reverse everything. But I also think low-intervention styles provide an interesting alternative.

I know some naturalistas do indeed want to see “chemicals” totally excluded from winemaking, but I certainly do not hold that view. Use science by all means, but just make sure it is proper science; not just the product of science from a few decades back, and don’t use methods and additives just because they are recommended by a consultant. I would include biodynamic consultants in that statement too!

BTW, low-intervention winemakers are not all “new traditionalists”. Some of them have always done it that way.


#19

It’s always good to query things, but my understanding is that, even if the mineral content of soils change, unless the soil is deficient in something, vines more-or-less take up the same minerals in the same proportions. Fruits in different soils may be different, but that difference is more due to the soils’ physical properties, like drainage. In other words, it is its indeed more important as a growing medium, but it is probably unfair to say that those aspects are simple.

I’m happy to go into more detail in this discussion, I would like to hear any evidence for mineral content being important.


#20

“vines more-or-less take up the same minerals in the same proportions.” yes but the nutrients are taken up nearly all through organic matter not from the geology, the minute amount of mineral taken up from eroding rock is not at a threshold that anyone could possibly taste anyway, so much for I can taste wet pebbles.
Percieved minerality is often a top down view we have in our heads about a certain wine, it has been implanted in most cases by the phrases used to describe, hence we “know” what we will be getting in a glass of Chablis, minerality in wine is a term that has been embedded without any actual evidence it exists, an invented term.

I have had a lot of information on all this direct from my cousin , who I mentioned before , who is an agrologist having studied soil in NZ for agriculture in general then for vines and then back here, it is hard going sometimes as it gets very technical but I have managed to absorb much over the many years he has been in the industry, and like most pros you get a very different slant on things compared to people in the wine trade who want to set out their stall as the way forward.
Despite the complexity it is an interesting field of information

I know what you were implying by my wording of “new traditionalists” Steve, it was simply a way of describing another bandwagon many want to climb on, yes there are many traditionalists still making wine, I remember saying something along those lines about the Emedio Pepe in Abruzzo and how the ‘mystic’ of his wine making brings buyers to his door, but the wine is so variable as to make it a pig in a poke purchase, I would never purchase at his prices something that has as much chance of going down the sink as giving any pleasure, and he is not alone, but many do see this as the way forward, I don’t, it is an opinion nothing more.