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April 20, 2016updated 28 Nov 2022 6:27am

Stemming the Tide

By Jamie Goode

The world of fine wine is big and diverse, and it’s dangerous to make generalizations. But if we take a wide-angle look, winemaking trends seem to move in cycles. From the perspective of this author at least, it seems we are currently in a phase where elegance and complexity are being pursued by winegrowers at the expense of power and strength. Visit wine regions worldwide and you’ll find very few young winemakers aiming to produce bigger wines –certainly not at the high end. They tend to prize elegance, freshness, and definition above all else. The monster 100-point wines of the nineties and noughties are increasingly looking like yesterday’s wines.

It’s perhaps for this reason that there is increasing interest in winemaking techniques that foster this elegance and complexity. For example, there’s a marked shift away from small new oak as the primary vessel of élevage, with renewed interest in concrete and larger, more neutral oak. Wild ferments used to be a novelty; now they almost seem the norm. While many are suspicious of the natural wine movement, even those outside it have begun to work more naturally in the cellar because they believe this is likely to result in wines that better express their sense of place. And there’s increasing discussion of, and experimentation with, the topic of this article: the use of stems in red wine making.

There is, of course, nothing new about making wine with the stems, which is usually referred to as whole-bunch or whole-cluster fermentation. Throughout history, wines would have been made from intact bunches, which were then either pressed immediately to yield juice for white wine fermentation, or macerated during the fermentation process for red wine production. The only way to remove the stems prior to red wine fermentation would have been manually picking off each berry. This is time-consuming and therefore very expensive, although there is one well-known Bordeaux estate, Château Pape Clément, that practices it for its first wine, and Domaine de la Vougeraie in Burgundy does this on a smaller scale for its Musigny Grand Cru. In Chile, Lapostolle’s Clos Apalta is also made from grapes that are hand-destemmed. But the development of the crusher-destemmer allowed winegrowers a quick, economical way of separating out the stems from the berries, and the vast majority of red wines are now made from grapes that are first destemmed, either by such a machine or, increasingly, in the vineyard by the machine harvester.

Some anatomy. When a bunch of grapes is picked, it consists of the grapes, plus some other material that holds the cluster together. The main axis of the cluster is the rachis, and the berries are attached to this by the pedicel. The bit that attaches the cluster to the vine, and which is cut through to release the bunch at picking is called the peduncle. Together this material, which we are referring to under the broad term “stem,” consists of about 2-5 percent of the weight of the cluster. Depending on the region and the year’s climatic conditions, stems can vary quite a bit in their appearance. This is because they start out as green photosynthetic material, and then undergo a process of lignification, which is the transition from green fleshy plant to woody plant, achieved through the deposition of lignin in the spaces in the cell walls between the cellulose fibres. So having stems in the fermentation can mean quite different things in terms of wine outcome, depending on the degree of lignification.

Who does whole-bunch and why?

Burgundy is the region most associated with whole-cluster fermentation, and, by association, Pinot Noir is the grape variety most closely linked with this technique. In part, this could be because Pinot Noir as a variety lacks acylated anthocyanins, which are a form of pigment. This explains why Pinot Noir is usually lighter in color than other red wines, but in addition, anthocyanins react in important ways with tannins in wine, and form pigmented polymers that are important in wine structure and color. Some of the wood tannins leached from the stems could be making up for this shortfall in Pinot Noir. But it has also been used by traditionalists in the Northern Rhône with Syrah. Increasingly, New World Pinot Noir producers have been exploring the use of whole clusters, and it is also catching on with Syrah producers who are looking for elegance.

Among the Burgundian domaines most famously associated with whole-bunch are Domaine de la Romanée- Conti, Leroy, Dujac, and Ponsot. “Clearly, in Burgundy at the moment there is a tendency to move toward stems,” says Burgundy expert Jasper Morris MW. “I can see two main reasons for this,” he explains. “One is that Henri Jayer, who hated stems, is dead. And the other is that with climate change, the stems are more often riper than they used to be.” Jayer, a hugely respected grower, influenced many to move away from stems, and until recently this was the direction being taken across the region. The popularity of destemming was closely linked to a corresponding reduction in greenness and rusticity in many red Burgundies, so there was a good reason for doing it. In a sense, people in the past used stems by default, and the results weren’t always good. Now the choice to use stems is an active one, so the people doing it are doing a better job of it.

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Jeremy Seysses at Domaine Dujac uses between 65 percent and 100 percent whole-cluster fermenations, depending on the cuvée. “We have the feeling that we get greater complexity and silkier tannins with whole-cluster fermentation,” he shares. “In high-acid vintages, it helps round things out, and in high-ripeness vintages, it brings a freshness to the wines.” For Seysses, the decision of whether or not to destem depends on a number of factors. “Some terroirs don’t seem to do so well with whole-cluster. The whole-cluster character rapidly becomes dominant and can appear ‘gimmicky,’ it doesn’t mesh well with the wine and can give the illusion of complexity, but it feels superficial,” he explains. “Of our holdings, I like destemming a little more for the Gevrey vineyards than for the others.” He also tends to destem more frequently the grapes from younger vineyards with bigger clusters, and in vintages with rapid end-of-season ripening, when the ripening may be a little more uneven.

Mike Symons, winemaker at Stonier in Australia’s Mornington Peninsula region, also finds that terroir is the biggest determinant of whether or not he uses stems in his ferments. “We have a couple of vineyards where we like the stems, that are north-facing and produce nice ripe stems,” he explains. “We pretty much know the vineyards where we like the stems. One of them is the Windmill vineyard, and another is the vineyard near the winery. There are some vineyards where we don’t include the stems, such as the Lyncroft vineyard, which is very cool, or the KBS vineyard Pinot. They would just be awful if we included the stems.”

“I normally find a strong correlation between the better sites and the amount of stem/whole-bunch I am able to use,” says Mark Haisma, an Australian working as a micro-négociant in Burgundy and Cornas. “The stems from the best sites are generally cleaner and richer in character.”

To decide whether or not to use stems, Mike Symons eats them. “If they taste like broccoli, we don’t use them.” His experience from regular workshops with Victorian Pinot Noir producers is that winemakers are increasingly talking about using stems, but he thinks that you need the right vineyard. “Some people get on bandwagons and they include stems where they shouldn’t. It is something you have to be careful of,” warns Symons. “With a blend where we include stems, we will do it over three days or more to make sure we get it right.”

Another well-known Victorian winemaker, Tom Carson of Yabby Lake, admits that he likes to play around a bit with whole bunches in his Pinot Noir fermentations. “I am still experimenting, and I’m reluctant to go in too hard. When it’s good, whole-bunch fermentation gives fragrance and perfume, and adds a bit of strength and firmness to the tannins. But when it’s not good, it can dull the fruit, adding mulch and compost character,” says Carson. “We want to highlight the fragrance of the Pinot. We don’t want complexing elements that aren’t vineyard-derived.” Carson did 8 percent whole-bunch in 2009, and 20 percent in 2010, but backed off a lot in 2011 because it was a wet year and the stalks were quite green. “We are still learning what is the right amount.”

Nick Mills, of Rippon, in New Zealand’s Central Otago, uses some whole bunches in the Pinot Noir ferments, but decisions are made based on the fruit. “We do some whole bunches,” says Nick, “but this is all done on the sorting table.” He adds that, “the sorting table isn’t about taking stuff off, it’s for me to taste pips and skins, and figure out what raw material we have. If we can chew the stems through then we’ll put them in. I’d put in 100 percent whole clusters if we could. It’s a better ferment.” Overall, Rippon Pinot Noir has 25-40 percent whole clusters. “The vineyard is incredibly parcellated,” says Nick, “with all these small microferments. If we get something really good, then we’ll put the whole lot in and do 100 percent stems, but if grapes come in that I don’t like the taste of, we’ll use no stems.”

It seems that lots of growers, like Mills, will use as many stems in the ferment as they can, with the limiting factor being the suitability of the stems. “When you are choosing whether or not to use stems, some people do a positive selection on the sorting table (a tri au positif) rather than a negative one,” says Morris. “So when they come across bunches with lovely bronze stems, they use them.”

Until recently, Eben Sadie of South Africa’s Swartland region didn’t use any stems when making his celebrated Columella wine, but he decided to change this with 35 percent of stems included in the 2009 vintage. “For the next ten years we will work with 20-40% whole-bunch,” he says. For Sadie, stems are a way to achieve freshness in his wines, but he uses them on a vineyard-by-vineyard basis. Of his eight vineyards, five are destemmed and three are 100 percent whole-bunch ferment.

Another warm-climate region where some growers are experimenting with stems to help achieve more elegance is France’s Roussillon. “I know that with our own wine, Le Soula, in the early years we had problems of over-extraction and rusticity in the red wine, despite not practicing any pigeage ,'”says UK wine merchant Roy Richards, talking of the domaine he and Mark Walford own in partnership with Gérard Gauby. “Incorporating the stalks allowed us to restrict that extraction, and added peony to the existing range of perfumes – a quite dramatic transformation!”

Well-known Australian consultant winemaker Tony Jordan has been using whole-bunch fermentations with Shiraz. “What we have been doing with Heathcote and Barossa fruit is trying to get a little more restraint in without moving away from Shiraz structure and character,” he says. ‘There, the use of whole bunches at 10, 15, or maybe as high as 20 percent can be good. In the wine I made from Heathcote, the way I was doing this was to put 15 percent whole bunches in the bottom and then crush the rest with wide-open rollers, so you probably get some whole berries in this as well. Then I am obsessed with working the cap very gently to try to let that maceration go through in those bunches. Then you really get the impact of it.” This is working with warm-climate wines; most experiments with whole-bunch typically take place with Pinot Noir. “The reason I am doing this is because it came out of all my Pinot making,” explains Jordan. “It was so successful with Pinot Noir, but why not for other varieties? The maceration carbonique character is a fruity element. You can tell it is fruity, but you can’t say ‘that’s macération carbonique.’ It is almost a brightness to the fruit.”

Carbonic maceration compared with whole-bunch

Here we need to pause for an aside, and journey to Beaujolais and the Gamay grape. Some winegrowers in Beaujolais practice the most extreme and purest version of whole-bunch fermentation, a technique referred to as maceration carbonique or carbonic maceration. Carbonic maceration isn’t usually thought of when reference is made to whole-bunch ferment — it produces rather different results — but it is an important element of what takes place during such fermentations, and understanding the technical details of carbonic maceration will help shed light on a part of the aroma and flavor impact of whole-cluster fermentation.

Simply put, carbonic maceration is the process that occurs when intact bunches of red grapes are fermented in a sealed vessel that has first been filled with carbon dioxide. In the absence of oxygen, these intact berries begin an intracellular fermentation process, during which some alcohol is produced, along with a range of other compounds that can affect wine aromas and flavor. Once the level of alcohol reaches 2%, which is after about a week at typical fermentation temperatures, the berries begin to die. They then release their juice, or are pressed before this happens, and a normal fermentation (carried out by yeasts) takes place. The result is typically a relatively pale red wine with low tannin levels and enhanced fruity aromatics.

The basis of carbonic maceration is the biochemical process of anaerobic fermentation — the breakdown of sugars to release energy in the absence of oxygen. Yeasts use this pathway even when oxygen is present, and the result is that sugar is broken down to alcohol and carbon dioxide. The cells in grapes can carry out a form of anaerobic fermentation, but they are less able to cope with the resulting alcohol than yeasts are. When whole bunches of grapes are placed in an atmosphere of carbon dioxide, they are able to break down sugars, but also malic acid, which is one of the main acids present in grapes. This malate degradation is perhaps the most significant step taking place during anaerobic fermentation, and it’s broken down sequentially to pyruvate, acetaldehyde, and then ethanol. Typically, half of the malic acid is degraded in this way.

In carbonic maceration there is therefore a fall in acidity levels that can be quite significant, with titratable acidity (TA) declining by as much as 3.5g/liter and pH increasing by up to 0.6 units. But bear in mind that there would be some loss of acidity during the malolactic fermentation that almost always occurs after alcoholic fermentation in red wines. During carbonic maceration, polyphenols (such as tannins and anthocyanins) migrate from the skin to the pulp (the inside of the grapes), turning their flesh pink. Various compounds that are important for flavor (or that are flavor precursors) are produced by this process. For example, extra amino acids are liberated from grape solids, which increases the nutrient status of the juice, and opens up the potential for these amino acids to act as flavor precursors. The ethanol produced can esterify some grape components, and one ester produced this way, ethyl cinnamate, gives strawberry and raspberry aromas. Another compound that increases is benzaldehyde, which adds cherry/kirsch aromas. The berries eventually die when alcohol reaches a level of 1.5-2.5%.

The traditional winemaking method in Beaujolais (known as macération traditionelle) is not a strict carbonic maceration. Here, the entire clusters are transported in 50-liter bins and dumped in wooden vats, or cement or steel tanks. Some of the berries on the bottom are crushed by the weight of those above them, they start fermenting, and the tank fills up with carbon dioxide. These intact berries begin internal fermentation, and then when they die they release their juice, which still has quite a bit of sugar in it, keeping the fermentation process going. The higher pH that results from the intracellular degradation of malic acid means that malolactic fermentation can begin more easily after alcoholic fermentation finishes. In reality, most carbonic macerations are not pure carbonic maceration. “Any break at all in the grape skin and yeast will get in and ferment those berries,” explains Tony Jordan, who has been working with whole-bunch ferments in some of his consulting projects. “What we find sometimes is that when we press off we get a kick up in sugar; other times we don’t. That is normally because in a ferment over ten days, you probably have true macération carbonique going for a few days, but by then you start to work it and you are breaking a few berries, and there aren’t many left that are truly intact with the stalk.”

The effect of including stems in a fermentation

Stems have a number of effects on fermentations, but this is where the story becomes complex and somewhat unclear. There are many different ways of using stems in the fermenter, and the stems themselves can be quite different in terms of how green or lignified they are. ‘There is an immense difference in flavor profile from all the people who do use stems,” says Morris, referring to Burgundy. “You also have to look at the techniques involved. Here it gets very complicated.” Morris adds that, “the stems in the fermenting vat will perhaps have a chemical impact, and certainly a physical impact.”

“In small vats, like those used in Burgundy, stems are useful because they drain the juice in a more homogeneous way and keep the temperature of fermentation one or two degrees lower,” says French wine writer Michel Bettane. Jeremy Seysses agrees: “The cap is more aerated, meaning that it doesn’t get quite as crazy hot as it would without any rachis in there, letting some heat escape. It also drains much better when you punch down or pump over, as you get no clumps.” Nick Mills of Rippon in Central Otago adds that the presence of stems allows the yeasts to move around more easily, and the pressing is better. And Rhône winemaker Eric Texier claims that in whole-bunch fermentation, the conversion factor of sugar to alcohol is slightly different, resulting in wines with lower alcohol.

In addition to these benefits, Bettane also adds that stems in the fermentation can also help diminish the negative influence of any fungal infection on the grapes. “In 1983, for instance, curiously the whole-bunch Burgundies were less flawed by rotten berries than were the destalked wines.” But if large tanks are used, he points out that it is impossible to keep the stems, because they make the cap too resistant to mechanic pressure. Seysses also says that whole-bunch ferments are harder to punch down. “You have to do it by foot or by piston, you can’t do it by hand. All these things change your extraction profile.”

Another physical effect of stems in the ferment is a loss of color. “The stems also absorb color, leaching the color of the wine,” explains Eben Sadie. “Almost everyone wanted to make more powerful, impressive wines, so whole-bunch was an unfashionable move because your wine looked weaker. For many people, color is an important property of the wine.” But Sadie doesn’t see this as a big problem. “I’ll lose some color to gain freshness and purity. The wine has more vibrancy and life in it. Where we work in South Africa, the biggest flaw is our wines are often too ripe. It’s good to get our wines fresher and more vibrant.”

In addition, stems raise the pH of the wine slightly (making it less acidic, usually a bad thing). This is because of the potassium released by the stems, which then combines with tartaric acid and precipitates the acid out of the wine. But Seysses points out that there is less potassium in the stems these days, so this not so much of a problem (the potassium got there in the first place because many Burgundy growers used too much fertilizer with high levels of it in the 1950s and ’60s). Some of this pH rise might also have to do with the macération carbonique element that is a part of whole-bunch fermentations.

There are many different ways of adding stems to the vat. “One question is, if you don’t use all stems — and there is probably quite a lot to be said for using just some stems — when do you put them in?” asks Morris. ‘Do you put them in first, as a sort of base to the cuve, and then put your destemmed grapes on top? Or do you put them in last, so the stems slowly float down through the juice? Or do you do some sort of lasagne-like layering between stems and non-stems, which I have heard some people do?”

“With many cuvées and the destemmed fraction being so small, I inevitably coferment,” explains Jeremy Seysses. ‘The practicalities of harvest don’t always allow it, but I usually like putting the destemmed fruit at the bottom and the whole cluster on top, so that it really stays whole. And as it can take a few days for the ferment to get going, I don’t want my healthy whole clusters to be covered with juice as they sit waiting for the yeasts to get going.”

Tim Kirk of Clonakilla, in Australia’s Canberra District, uses some whole bunch to make his Shiraz/Viognier, but unlike Seysses’ preference, the bunches go in first. Whole bunches are put into 2-ton fermenters, only part-full. Some Viognier is typically crushed and destemmed and put on this, and then some Shiraz is destemmed and put on top. Kirk estimates that around 20 percent of the grapes in the whole-cluster portion stay attached to the rachis and don’t burst. Instead, these berries begin fermentation from inside, as in carbonic maceration. If you take these whole berries out part way through fermentation, their pulp is colored red, so they are extracting color from the inside. They are also still a bit sweet, and on pressing, these berries release sugar, which acts to prolong fermentation.

This delayed sugar release from intact berries is also noted by Blair Walter of Felton Road in New Zealand’s Central Otago, who uses a little bit of whole-bunch to add complexity to his wines. “We typically put in a quarter whole- bunch and destem the rest of the bunches. And then when we punch down we don’t go to the bottom of the tank. After 28 days you can still pull out whole bunches. They have fermented inside [the intact berries] and there is still some sweetness that is pulled out.” He thinks this remaining sweetness is important because it keeps fermentation ticking along for a while. “Burgundians typically chaptalize in six-to-eight small additions,” claims Walter. ‘This results in a slightly stressed fermentation producing more glycerol. This changes the texture and adds some fruit sweetness. It surprises me that more people don’t use whole bunches.’

This partial carbonic maceration character probably contributes significantly to the enhanced aromatics and texture often found in wines made by whole-bunch fermentation. But Michel Bettane thinks that some of this benefit can also be derived from very careful destemming. “Don’t forget that new destemmers are so precise and delicate that they allow winemakers to put “caviar” destemmed berries in the vats with almost the same effect as whole-bunch fermentation,” says Bettane. ‘The beginning of the fermentation takes place inside the berry, helping to preserve the quality of fruit, delicacy of texture, and capacity to age, while avoiding any barnyard undertones.”

Mark Haisma is a winemaker with broad experience across both hemispheres. In his previous employ he was at Yarra Yering, in Australia’s Yarra Valley, but he’s now a micro-négociant in Burgundy, also making a Cornas in the Northern Rhône. At Yarra Yering he developed an innovative approach to stem use, which he calls a “macerating basket.” “The fruit would be completely destemmed, and I had some stainless-steel mesh cylinders made,” he explains. “These would be stuffed with the stems. I could take them out when I felt I had what I wanted.” And the results of using stems this way? “I find it adds a great spicy complexity to the wine and also builds your tannin profile. And this way I have absolute control.” Haisma is working on this in Burgundy, with some interesting results, but he doesn’t know anyone else doing it this way.

“Whole-bunch for me is about controlling the ferment, slowing it down, with a slow release of sugar,” says Haisma. “It is a great way to build complexity and savory characters, and still keep a lush creamy feel to the palate. I think of velvet. This is especially noticeable with my Cornas. As for Burgundy, it’s all about complexity and finesse. In the big appellations I feel it adds structure, without adding any coarseness or bitterness — characters I hate in Pinot Noir.”

The other variable here is the length of time the stems stay in the ferment. Is a cold-soak employed, or a postferment maceration? This could increase the extraction of flavor compounds from the stems. Dirk Niepoort from Portugal’s Douro uses stems to make his Charme wine, which is known for its elegance and finesse. For him, the length of time the stems macerate in the lagar is critical. In one vintage, he says, he misjudged a lagar by five hours — and that was enough for the wine to be excluded from the final blend.

The negative effects of whole-bunch?

We have discussed the positive aspects of whole-bunch fermentation. What about the negatives? Blair Walter of Felton Road says that he used to do one fermenter with just whole bunches each year, but has now given up. “For us it is too much,” he says. “It is interesting but the wine becomes too herbal — it has a hessian sack character.” But he still uses smaller proportions of stems in many of his fermentations. “With stems, people expect the wines to become angular. I find the opposite. Destemmed wines taste more angular. A lot of people don’t have the courage [to use stems]; they aren’t willing to tolerate earthiness and herbal characters in the wine.” Tom Carson finds that using too many stems gives his wines a mulchy, herbal character.

“Whole-bunch is a very important part of my ferments,” says Haisma. “But the stems need to be clean. Any mold and it really shows in your wine, worse than moldy fruit.”

Greenness is the problem most often associated with stems. While there has been increased interest in the use of stems in red wines worldwide, one region stands out as an exception: Bordeaux. This is likely because the main Bordeaux varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot all share a degree of greenness in their varietal flavor signature — something that most winemakers will seek to minimize, and won’t want to risk exaggerating by including stems. Paul Pontallier at Château Margaux, however, has looked at the impact of stems as part of his extensive in-house research program. This stem trial was with 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon from a plot that, in good years, makes it into the first wine. “We wanted to see how important it is to destem,” recalls Pontallier. “Our tradition has been to destem almost totally. From the early-20th century at Margaux destemming was a standard procedure.” He points out that some in Bordeaux are now suggesting that using some stems could be a good thing. And on the other side, some estates have become more fastidious about removing even the tiniest bits of stem. The destemming regime in practice at Margaux leaves some tiny pieces of stems in the ferment, such that 0.03-0.05 percent of the ferment has stems. In this trial, the standard Margaux destemming was compared with 1 percent stem additions, and 1 percent stem additions but with the stems cut into tiny pieces. To Pontallier, the results from this trial are obvious. His view is that the current approach produces the best wines, and the 1 percent stems in pieces the worst. But he is still cautious about generalizing. “We shouldn’t draw any more general conclusions. For this wine I think destemming works, but for other plots, such as a rich wine with soft tannins, it might be different.”

In California, Paul Draper at Ridge also avoids using stems with Cabernet Sauvignon. “We have never used stems with the Bordeaux varieties, as we have more than enough tannin in any year,” says Draper. “In addition, in our cool climate — which is as cool as Bordeaux during the growing season but with cooler nights and warmer days — we are sensitive to any green character, which of course is a risk with stems.” Draper also chooses not to use stems for his Zinfandel: “Although this is not as tannic as the Bordeaux varieties, it is well balanced without any additional structure.” He does, however, include stems when he ferments the few tons of Petite Sirah that Ridge has at Lytton Springs.” Draper thinks there is a good reason why stems are most widely used for Pinot Noir. “Given that Pinot Noir has less tannin and fewer different kinds of tannin than virtually any other well known variety, the use of stems when needed makes more sense.”


There are many different ways of doing whole-bunch fermentations. Combine these different techniques with the variability in the state of ripeness of the stems, and it creates a complex matrix of factors liable to result in very different aromas and flavors in the wine. So, it is with some trepidation that I attempt to sum up the way that whole-cluster ferments affect the taste of red wines.

The ripeness of the stems seems to be very important, and this is likely to be determined primarily by the vineyard site, with vintage variation playing a role. In some warmer regions with a shorter ripening time, the stems may still be very green at harvest, and thus unsuitable for inclusion.

An element of carbonic maceration is an important part of whole-bunch ferments. The intracellular fermentation that occurs in any intact berries will produce interesting aromatic elements, and the gradual release of sugar into the ferment will change its dynamics. Together with this, the reduced temperature of whole-bunch ferments is likely to have some effect on the resulting wine, usually in a positive direction. There may also be some direct aroma or flavor input from the stems, which can be good or bad, depending on their state. The slight rise in pH that occurs with whole-bunch may increase the susceptibility of the wine to Brettanomyces, but at the same time improve its texture.

The benefits of whole-bunch? One is textural: it seems to deliver a textural smoothness or silkiness that is really attractive, especially in Pinot Noir. Along with this, the tannic structure may be increased. I find that young whole bunch reds often have a grippy, spicy, tannic edge that can sometimes be confused with the structural presence of new oak. Frequently cited as a benefit of whole bunch is the enhanced aromatic expression of the wine, and it’s common to find an elevated, sappy green, floral edge to the pronounced fruity aromas, which can be highly seductive. Freshness is another positive attribute associated with whole-bunch. Done well, whole cluster can help make wines that are more elegant than their totally destemmed counterparts. I would add, however, that whole-bunch wines sometimes start out with distinctive aromas and flavors that can be a little surprising or even shocking; tasting terms associated with whole-bunch include broccoli, soy sauce, compost, mulch, forest floor, herbal, green, black tea, cedar, menthol, and cinnamon. But these often resolve nicely with time in bottle.

“The wines of the 1990s were the Parkerized wines,” says Tony Jordan, referring to the move at this time in Australia to make monster wines. “Everyone seemed to think bigger was better, and the wines seemed to be getting bigger in every way. Now there is a big step back from that. And yet if you are in a warm climate, the wines are going to be robust. That’s the terroir speaking. But you can still aim for freshness, a bit of brightness of fruit, more elegance on the palate.” This is one of the reasons why there is now so much interest in whole-bunch fermentation — because it is a technique for making more expressive, more elegant red wines, even from sites not known for these qualities.

Even commentators who used to be opposed to whole-bunch fermentation, such as UK merchant and Burgundy expert Roy Richards, are softening their attitudes. “I no longer have an ideological view on this question, and understand that it is rather more complicated than I used to believe,” says Richards. “As a disciple of the late Henri Jayer, I followed his mantra that stalks led to green tannins, and that new oak led to creamy, soft ones. And it is true that in his time his wines stood out for their vibrancy and sensuality, whereas those wines from more illustrious domaines seemed a little delicate and pasty alongside.” Richards adds, “Henri is doubtless turning in his grave, seeing his protégés Jean-Nicolas Méo and Emmanuel Rouget experimenting with whole-bunch fermentation in his beloved Cros Parantoux.” Richards thinks that this could be down in part to changing weather patterns. “Burgundy is no longer such a marginal climate,” he says. “I can understand from the results I have seen that stalks lend finesse and some floral perfume to wines that might otherwise be a little butch — say, Corton, Clos Vougeot Pommard, and certain Morey-St-Denis premiers crus.”

It seems that the circle has turned. What was once seen as an outmoded practice — including the stems in red-wine ferments — is now becoming a fashionable winemaking tool for those seeking elegance over power.

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