The NEW Teachings of Old Field Blends
By Nils Kevin Puls
The year is 1806. The date June 17th. Privy Councilor Goethe sits in Frankfurt — high and dry. He reaches for his quill and writes a letter to a friend: “Send me some Würzburger wine, for no other wine satisfies, and I am morose without my accustomed favorite drink.”
While the line may not be poetic, the composition Johann Wolfgang von Goethe thirsted for is. The wine in question was, quite possibly, “Frentsch” (local dialect for Altfränkischer Satz or Old Franconian Mixed Set): a field blend of some 20 grape varieties, all planted, harvested, and fermented together. What once gave growers a bit of hope against the weather odds is, today, a piece of history through which some growers have learned to meet the challenges of the future.
Two hundred years later, a few modern Franconians started turning Altfränkischer Satz into a piece of living cultural history. And a few years after that, the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity added the unique field blend to its Ark of Taste.
Now, please clear the stage for a dialogue among growers and experts — a dialogue that perhaps never happened but nevertheless presents their true views in their own words — those who are giving the old field blend a new voice.
Josef Engelhart as "Old-Vine Hunter"
Viticulturist and varietal consultant, Engelhart’s been searching out Franken’s oldest wine grape varieties for a decade as part of the “Alte Weinberge” (old vineyards) project.
Michael Völker and Melanie Drese as "Natural Wine Growers"
With their estate 2Naturkinder, the couple are Franken’s natural wine pioneers. They foster nature in their wines and biodiversity in their vineyards.
Peter Vogel as "Weinberg 1901"
Following studies in viticulture and beverage technology, Vogel has spent a decade leading a wine lab and awakening a small vineyard from its Sleeping Beauty rest. The quarter-hectare has, to date, been managed by the women in the family as a side project. It was planted a century after Goethe experienced his summer thirst.
Anja Stritzinger as "The Organic Grower"
One of her vineyards, which serves as a museum of sorts for historic Franconian canopy management, was identified by Josef Engelhart as “roter Frentsch,” or Red Old Franconian Mixed Set.
Philipp Luckert as "Owner of Oldest Known Silvaner Vineyard"
His family’s estate, Zehnthof, owns one of the oldest known Silvaner vineyards. Anno 1870, own-rooted.
Gottfried Lamprecht as "The Styrian"
Far from Franken, Gottfried Lamprecht lives and works in Austria’s Steiermark (Styria). Fifteen years ago, he started out with nothing. Now he’s got a Gemischter Satz of a hundred different grape varieties, including all Pinot varieties, Riesling, Furmint, Welschriesling, Zierfandler, Rotgipfler, weißer Heunisch, rotgestreifter Heunisch, as well as Adelfränkisch and Grünfränkisch. More on those rarities later.
Act One – Traces of the Past
Scene: Somewhere in Franken, Josef Engelhart roams the vineyards, identifying the vines within.
Engelhart: “Frentsch was traditionally a mixture of various high-quality varieties and was even sold to French nobility. Between 1820 and 1840 the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Weinverbesserung (German Society for Wine Improvement) discussed which was better: field blends or monovarietal wines? The Rieslings of the Rhein and Mosel won. It should be noted that at the time ‘monovarietal’ meant 80%-90% of a given variety. In Franken, this meant Silvaner, mostly mixed with Elbling.”
Scene: Sulzfeld am Main. Philipp Luckert, third-generation estate owner, observes:
Luckert: “As a Franconian, I know, of course, that not all Silvaner is the same. For 252 years, Gelber, Grüner, Roter and Blauer Silvaner have grown here. What’s particularly notable about the old vines is that the vine trunk disease Esca appears far less frequently, or not at all.”
Scene: Peter Vogel on the way to his family’s vineyard, planted in 1901.
Vogel: “Our vineyard is own-rooted. It may have been spared from phylloxera because the vineyards here on the outskirts are smaller and more dispersed, unlike the more prominent Würzburger Stein. Phylloxera likes warmth; the unaffected parcels were apparently cooler.”
Engelhart: “Gemischter Satz is a brilliant thing. It helps growers deal with adverse weather conditions. We still have late frosts and varieties that are very sensitive to frost, as well as those that can withstand late frosts. Other varieties hold up better in weather that’s unfavorable for blossoming, as we had this past year. It was and is a form of insurance.”
Vogel: “Why was Elbing planted here back in the day? Simply to have one variety whose blossoms could survive a late frost. It’s about finding balance and working in harmony with nature.”
Scene: Back in Kitzingen. The Eselsberg hill rises from behind a few fruit trees and a small biotope. Völker and Drese have created far more than varietal diversity here. This is also a place of great biodiversity: snakes devour the mice who steal grapes; bats are offered a refuge and repay the couple with fertilizer. Insects — from dragonflies to wild bees — fly through the vineyard, dusting the grapes with yeast.
Völker: “Three years ago, we planted a half-hectare of Altfränkischer Satz, 95 percent of it in the traditional style (some varieties are hard to come by). Now, for the first time, we’re starting to get something from it. But the last few years were extremely tough for the young vineyard. Early on, I might have let the cover crops grow a bit too liberally and irrigated too minimally because I’m not a fan of irrigation. If you give too little, a lot can go wrong. On the other hand, if you give too much, the roots never grow downward and the vines are like little heroin addicts.
Even in this third year, things weren’t easy for this ‘new old’ vineyard. Drought stressed the plants; in February we had a week of temps below -20°C temperatures. We even had some frost hit in May. Then came peronospora: the vineyard really went through everything possible. But still, we got enough for a little barrel — a 250 L barrique. It’s a start!“
Vogel: “Mechanical cultivation is out of the question: the vines are planted just 80 centimeters apart. “Rip out every other row,” people said. “But I didn’t want that; it would have meant a loss of diversity.”
Scene: Klingenberg. Anja Stritzinger stands in front of her old, terraced sandstone vineyards. This spot once belonged to Mainz, now it’s part of Franken. The dry stone walls recall those distant days.
Stritzinger: “The oldest vines of Roter Satz are from the period between the world wars. After World War II, most sites were replanted to Portugieser or Spätburgunder [aka Pinot Noir]. Still, old varieties remain: Roter Franke, Blauer Urban, Tauberschwarz — an autochthonous variety from the Taubertal — as well as Cabernet Sauvignon, brought back during the war, Sankt Laurent (an old Spätburgunder clone), Blauer Kölner, Schwarzer Trollinger, Schwarz Urban, Affentaler, and Süßschwarz. For the most part, we’re just talking about two to three vines of each. Some are more expressive than others. For instance, Schwarzer Trollinger is perceptible in the 2019 vintage, with Muscat aromas and more pronounced fruit.”
Scene: Back in Kitzingen. October 2nd. The day before the first harvest of 2naturkinder’s Frentsch.
Völker: “It was also fascinating just determining a pick date. You tend to think everything’s ready when the Gelber and Roter Muskateller are ripe. But that’s not what this is about. It’s about a single pick and letting everything co-ferment. Otherwise, it’s not a field blend, it’s a cuvée. What I find exciting is that you have to apply the same thoughts about how to compose a cuvée as you do to composing the vineyard — but years in advance. ‘How much of which variety will I have to put in?’ You have no idea what will come out of it. If you have three vineyards like this, your wealth of experience increases; then you can say, ‘For the fourth site, I’ll plant 10% more Muskateller or Bouquetrebe.’ But I’ve never tasted our composition, in this diversity, anywhere.”
Vogel: “I have Elbling planted and it gives the signal for the start of harvest. The berries are the first to ripen and then start to burst. Rot follows. Then the question is: how much rot can I accept when the Silvaner isn’t yet ripe. It’s a balancing act between healthy and ripe grapes.”
Engelhart: “Gemischter Satz depends on diversity. The early-ripening grapes deliver the sugar, the late-ripeners the acidity. This is what gives the wine stability. Natural winemakers see these advantages especially. In the past, Gemischter Satz was helpful for fermentations, too. There were no commercial yeasts. The over-ripe berries naturally had a higher concentration of yeasts on their skins, which guaranteed a good fermentation.”
Stritzinger: “The Roter Satz is pretty light for a red wine. You can see it even at harvest, the old red varieties don’t take on color as well as our modern clones do. But you can also see more readily how well they’ve grown. And over these past few dry years, when climate change has shown itself to be drawing closer, they’ve held up well. We didn’t lose any vines the way we did in other vineyards. ”
Act Two – Variety as Rarity and Terroir Expression
Scene: Pöllau, Steiermark, east of Graz — in Austria. Gottfried Lamprecht is mid-harvest. As his press runs, he gets a brief moment to voice his thoughts.
Lamprecht: “When a grape variety doesn’t grow in a particular place, it’s swapped out. So, one can assume that those that do grow well in a region over decades are also at home there. The Steiermark can have difficult weather conditions and a lot of rain. But there can never be a year that’s so bad that there’s no Gemischter Satz. In recent years, we’ve also had frequent frosts, but that doesn’t bother a field blend much. If one variety freezes, another one takes over. A Gemischter Satz is never the same wine. It can’t be because the varieties always behave differently, whether in terms of potential yield or due to coulure. I take the long view: they’re always the more interesting and stable wines — and vineyards! It seems to me that the vineyards are healthier. The earlier-ripening varieties transmit signals to the soil. Microorganisms mobilize the nutrients needed for ripeness. The vine roots of the plants nearby pick this up and start to ripen a bit earlier themselves. At least that’s my theory.”
Völker: “I like breaking up clonal monocultures. When I replant, I always see if I can bring in a different clone or even a different variety. I have an old vineyard of Grüner Silvaner that I use for our ‘Heimat’ Silvaner. Two years ago, I added Blauer Silvaner, this year Gelber, next year I’ll add Roter. It’s still a Silvaner vineyard, but it’s diverse. I still don’t have the experience to say yet whether this translates into yield security, but generally speaking, this year we saw that peronospora affects some varieties more significantly than others. That was plain to see, especially among organic growers. Vineyards that still looked healthy from the outside, you knew they were sprayed with synthetics. The organically farmed vineyards were brown, at least the majority of them. I can imagine keeping something like that more in check with a field blend.”
Lamprecht: “I find it boring to walk by the same variety all day every day. But I also chose Gemischter Satz because I was fascinated by the mindset of [iconic Alsace grower] Marcel Deiss. He said: “Gemischter Satz is the one, true terroir wine.” Because a single grape variety doesn’t make a site; a multitude of varieties do. A site, including the thinking and people behind it, is a much better interpreter than a single variety.“
Engelhart: “Frentsch yields complex wines with a thrilling aromatic spectrum. When a wine like that warms in the glass, it continuously develops new aromas. The wine also changes with bottle age: in addition to the herbaceous and fruit aromas, there is a stabilizing acidity.”
Völker: “20 varieties make up our new Altfränkischer Satz: 60% of it is comprised of four Silvaner types, including [the extremely rare] Bukettsilvaner, then Roter and Gelber Muskateller, Kleinberger, Heunisch, Adelfränkisch, Vogelfränkisch, Elbling, Grauburgunder, Weißburgunder, Spätburgunder, and Riesling. We harvested the Heunisch for the first time this autumn. The grapes are very loose-clustered, light pink, and you immediately think pét-nat, with a touch of color. It’s so much fun to hold the old varieties in your hand and taste them. In Franken, we don’t have a wide range of grapes that have survived. In terms of regional identity and marketing, I find it more exciting to look back to what’s been grown here for centuries, rather than to respond to climate change with Syrah and Chardonnay and trying to build up Franken as a new France. Grape varieties have been migrating through Europe for millennia, so it’s legitimate to let Chardonnay wander, too. But that’s not the case with an Adelfränkisch or Vogelfränkisch; their identities have almost been forgotten.”
Act Three – Wine of the Future
Veitshöchheim, north of Würzburg. Josef Engelhart works here, at the Bavarian State Institute for Viticulture and Horticulture. He also sits on the executive board of PIWI International and has worked with fungal-resistant grapes for 40 years.
Engelhart: “Alongside Altfränkischer Satz, something called Fränkischer Satz is now being established, using the new fungus-resistant varieties. The goal is the same: to achieve complex, layered wines. The varieties are the newer generation of PIWIs such as Souvignier Gris, Muscaris, or Blütenmuskateller — all very robust. With these varieties, growers can reduce their use of synthetic plant protection treatments by 80% and very little organic plant protection is needed, either.”
Völker: “In 2020, advised by Joseph Engelhart, we planted a half hectare with six PIWI varieties. We planted the vines so as to ensure that there were never too many of any one variety together. Beyond that, we wanted to create complexity. Ultimately, each PIWI variety plays a different role. Souvignier Gris forms the basis, Muscaris gives the aromas. What you will taste later in the wine is of course difficult to determine. It will be interesting to see which varieties feel most at home there.”
Engelhart: “The trend toward old varieties, PIWIS, and field blends is picking up again in Franken. Altfränkischer Satz’s inclusion in Slow Food’s ‘Ark’ is a good sign!”
Today, Franken is home to just 7.5 hectares of Altfränkischer Satz, or 0.12% of the region’s total vineyard area. As a passenger aboard the Slow Food “Ark,” Altfränkischer Satz is protected as a piece of regional cultural heritage, ensuring that gastronomic diversity, too, is preserved for the future. Altfränkischer Satz gives Franken’s wine culture a USP that sets it apart from the rest of German viticulture.
These first delicate roots are setting a foundation for the future of Frentsch. May the work be as solid as that of Völker’s family estate, founded in 1843 — exactly 37 years after Goethe wrote his wistful line. Yet Privy Councilors are now a thing of the distinct past; Frentsch fortunately remains.
Translation: Valerie Kathawala