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?