Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Stems or no Stems

Wine grapes are harvested by cutting the base stem that is attached to the cane, not by picking individual grapes - whole clusters of grapes arrive at the winery for crushing. The wine maker must decide whether or not to remove the stems before fermentation. This is not a simple decision. There are pros and cons to destemming and passionate arguments have centered on the merits of stems.

Almost all white wine and most red wine is made without stems. Stems are common in Beaujolais where a lot of wine is made using the carbonic maceration technique. There is no other wine region that I know of where whole cluster fermentation (not destemming) is the majority technique. In the Côte d'Or of Burgundy there is still an argument about this issue, with loud voices on either side.

In simple terms (the only destemming terms I understand), proponents of destemming feel that stems add harsh and bitter tannins to the wine, and impart a green, vegetal character. Henri Jayer, the iconic grower and winemaker was perhaps the strongest voice on this side of the debate. Proponents of whole cluster fermentation like the tannic structure and the complexity of aroma and flavor that stems provide. Stems also allow for better drainage of juice through the cap, the layer of solids that float on top of fermenting grape must. Domaine de la Romanée Conti is perhaps the most prominent Burgundy producer that ferments whole clusters.

I have nothing new to add to this debate, but I will say this: if you're going to leave stems in your fermenting grape must, they must be ripe and clean. That might sound obvious, but it's a powerful idea. Stems that are phenolically unripe will be bitter and astringent and the wine will be harsh. Stems that have been sprayed will excessive fertilizers and other chemicals will add those flavors to the wine.

I couldn't help but notice that the producers I loved the most in Burgundy practice whole cluster fermentation. DRC - whole cluster fermentation. Dujac - whole cluster fermentation. Pacalet - whole cluster fermentation. Domaine de L'Arlot - whole cluster fermentation. I am not sure about Rousseau, who I loved equally to those above, or Mugnier, Le Moine, and Mugnier.

And I think about other producers whose wines I have greatly enjoyed in the past few years - Sylvie Esmonin - switched to whole cluster fermentation for the 2004 vintage, and Chandon de Briailles - whole cluster in almost every case. And one of my favorite new world producers, Doug Tunnel of Brick House in Oregon ferments whole clusters.

Is this a coincidence, or do I prefer whole cluster fermented wines? I'm guessing that it's not a coincidence. I gravitate towards the pure and clean wines, and you have to work cleanly in the vineyards and in the winery in order to ferment whole clusters. And the added complexity, the vividly translucent colors (stems apparently dilute color) aren't bad either.


Anonymous said...

There is a long grape radio podcast of a J.F. Mugnier and Allen Meadows forum that includes a lengthy discussion of the stem issue. Very interesting stuff...

Do Bianchi said...

Did you taste Movia's Lunar at the Domaine Select tasting? It's made with whole bunches and carbonic maceration.

Have a great holiday Brooklynguy!

viNomadic said...

Neil, sorry I've been such a stranger-- Happy Holidays, first of all.
Have a handshake deal with possibly the strictest non-interventionist in Mendoza, Alberto Cecchin. He grows, of all things, some Carignan & Graciano, vineyards bought from Spanish growers by his 1st gen.Italo-Argentino dad & uncle. (Sorry, I *do* go on) Anyway, the Graciano has nice body but low acid & simple black cherry character. He was shocked when I suggested whole-cluster fermenting a percentage of it...

Joe said...

Great piece, Neil. Are you aware of any other Oregon makers using whole cluster fermentation?