Whole cluster ready to go

Is That a Whole Cluster in Your Pinot or Are You Just Happy to See Me?

Makers and drinkers of pinot noir gather to discuss the meaning and merits of stem inclusion

When you’re a tasting a glass of pinot noir, how do you know — can you even tell and does it matter — whether or not the wine was made with the whole clusters and not just the grapes? Percentage of stem inclusion doesn’t exactly make for the sexiest or most sparkling label copy, but it is this single decision — to destem or not to destem — that may have the most profound effect on the character of the finished wine. On a recent Monday afternoon at Bluxome Street Winery in San Francisco, writer Jordan Mackay kicked off a discussion about the purpose and merits of fermenting whole clusters of pinot noir with this very question. (Especially helpful since we would be tasting six different wines made with varying amounts of whole cluster-fermented wine.)

“Stems mature into earth, leaves, forest floor, everything we love about pinot noir,” said Jim Clendenen, the man, the legend behind Au Bon Climat. Ehren Jordan of Failla describes whole-cluster fermented wine as “a closed fist.” With wines that were made from berries only “you see it all,” said Jordan. “With whole cluster there is more potential.” Jamie Kutch, who is a big time advocate of stem inclusion, says that texture is the most important difference. “There are compounds found in stems that you don’t find in the fruit and seeds,” said Kutch.

We understand that including stems in fermentation can add flavor and texture but merely including stems and whole-cluster fermentation are not the same thing. Stems are not seasoning. Clendenen shared a story about a producer who destemmed his fruit and just chopped up the stems and added them to the fermentation later. “If you want green flavors in your wine, that is how you get them,” he said.

Including whole clusters of grapes “changes the kinetics of the fermentation,” explained Clendenen. because the fruit isn’t getting battered and broken during the destemming process, fermentation tends to be slower and cooler than if all that sugar was released and raring to go — “a massive sugar rush,” as Jordan puts it. The stems also create pockets for for oxygen and Co2, which Kutch believes helps to protect the wine as it is aging in barrel, so you might actually have to add less So2 — always a good thing.

Another side effect of whole-cluster ferms is that some of the berries may never actually break, causing intracellular fermentation. Mackay has noticed that whole cluster wines tend to have a perfuminess, an “aromatic lift” that we often associate with Beaujolais, where carbonic maceration is de rigueur. Berries that are fermenting inside their own skins will also likely still be a little sweet when it comes time to press the juice and put it down to barrel. When he’s working with new oak, Jordan thinks that going to barrel “warm and sweet” is better for integrating the oak into the wine. “Taking a finished wine and putting it in a new barrel is a jarring thing. Taking an unfinished wine and letting it finish off in the barrel results in much smoother edges texturally in the wine,” said Jordan.

As for aging, the panelists believed that the tannins from the stem may help preserve color and even freshness. Jordan explained how he thinks about it by wrapping one of his hands around the other fist like in roshambo when paper beats the rock. “You have your fruit flavors and that tannin or stem puts a protective layer or coat on, and as it ages that tannin finally resolves itself and drops out and you have this freshness,” said Jordan. It sounds like a great magic trick, but hey, what’s wrong with a little magic in wine?

Most theories about whole cluster seem to be based more on observation and tasting than actual science, which is probably what makes it so interesting and the subject of so much debate around the world (“In Burgundy, it’s very controversial,” said Mackay). The proof, as they say, is in the pudding — or in this case the wine — and if nothing else, all can agree that whole clusters certainly do leave their mark. Of the two barrel samples that Kutch brought — one destemmed, the other whole cluster — the whole cluster wine certainly had more power, tannin and complexity, smelling of dark chocolate, sage and mint. The destemmed wine was brighter, fruitier and simpler.

The 2009 Au Bon Climat from the Talley Rosemary vineyard in Arroyo Grande Valley, which was 100 percent whole cluster, illustrated perfectly what stems can do when the year and vineyard site make it possible to throw ‘em all in. It was lovely and savage: light in color and body but intensely aromatic and flavorful — earth, resinous herbs, sour cherry, rose petals — and complex, changing constantly in the glass as great wines tend to do. “When you can use one hundred percent stems, said Clendenen “you can make a transcendent wine.” The first can here is key. “It isn’t necessarily a dogmatic thing,” said Jordan. “I think with great sites in exceptional years there exists that opportunity.”

As drinkers and lovers of pinot noir, it matters because what we think of as “pinot noir” character may not be the grape, it may actually be its rachis. As winemakers, whether or not you choose to include stems, well, that’s a personal decision.