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Jefford on Monday: Hamlet in Cornas

To de-stem or not to de-stem: is it every Pinot grower's Hamlet moment?

Heights of Cornas (Image: Andrew Jefford)

The topic has become a familiar one in Burgundy over the past half-decade, of course, and while the (Jayeriste) destemmers still greatly outnumber those who work with whole bunches, the latter school includes some significant domains (DRC, Leroy, Dujac, Dugat-Py). Many promising newcomers, too, use an increasing percentage of whole bunch in their ferments (including Henri Jayer’s grand-neice, Cécile Tremblay).  

If you’re not hung up on ‘purity of fruit’, and would generally rather have fruit qualified by earthier, gruffer, sappier, more plant-like complexities; if you love tannins and the textural dimension of red wines (which brings most of Europe’s great reds their profundity and nobility); and if you prefer lower acidity levels to higher acidity levels, then you probably — like me — relish the inclusion of a sizeable percentage of stems. The one risk of stem-inclusion is herbaceousness or overt greenness, thus the most successful stem-includers tend to be the later harvesters (or those whose fastidious viticultural practices deliver complete ripeness at an earlier stage than their peers).

For all that, the use or otherwise of stems often seems to me to be as much a question of tone and feel in Burgundy as an existential challenge: it’s one decision out of many, and the logic of site still takes precedence over most. There are some very fine-grained wines, significantly, which are vinified with their stems, like those of Chandon de Briailles.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I went to Cornas. Suddenly the question of stem inclusion exploded with existential force – in that those Cornas wines made with de-stemmed fruit seemed almost to have a different origin to those vinified with their stems.

Cornas is a unique zone in the northern Rhône, especially Cornas from the lower parcels of this very various suite of hillside slopes (125 m to over 400 m). You find cade juniper and sage-leaved cistus here, just as you do in Languedoc, not the heather and broom of the hills a few kilometers north. An amplitude begins to creep into the flavour repertoire; the wine wants to be just a little bit richer than its peers. The use of stems, I’d suggest, allows it to be.

Clape, of course, is the reference domain for stem-lovers: no destemming in any vintage. “It stiffens the wine in weak years,” says Olivier Clape, “and brings freshness in hot years.” The Clapes do harvest late, but none of the wines I tasted with Olivier from 2013 (tun samples), from 2012 or from 2011 lacked the perfume and vitality which is Northern Rhône Syrah’s birthright. They were complete, chunky, rumpled and ample; they had an inner glow, and ruddy cheeks. You could cut the tannins up with your teeth; they’d then seem to bleed flavor and perfume: totally satisfying. (Rhône consulting oenologist Fabien Ozanne confirmed that the use of stems adds about 15% to the total IPT or total polyphenolic index.)

You can still, of course, make excellent Cornas with entirely destemmed fruit, but it will be very different. The wines of Jean-Luc Colombo, his wife Anne and his thoughtful daughter Laure seem to represent Cornas from the other side of this particular looking glass. They have the typical Cornas spectrum of flavours: you can find tar in them, and meat spices, and blood and wild flowers, but in textural terms they are smooth and shapely, their fruit always furnishes the magnetic pole of each wine, and their acidities are fresh, bright, structuring, even crunchy.

Most growers in Cornas today seem to be working somewhere between the two. “Stems?” said canny Albéric Mazoyer, formerly Chapoutier’s technical director but nowadays running Alain Voge’s domain. “It’s no longer a question for me. Look at the bunch. If the quality is there, use it. If it isn’t, it’s of no interest.” Voge’s commanding 2012 Cornas Vieilles Vignes and charmingly perfumed 2012 Cornas Vieilles Fontaines cuvee both include about 25 per cent stems.  

Another exceptionally skilled winemaker is Stéphane Robert of Domaine du Tunnel. He is a little chary of stems because of their potassium content (which is one reason why they play a de-acidifying role), but still includes ten to 50 per cent in his classic Cornas wines. I was unable to taste the Cornas of Thierry Allemand, who follows Clape in doing little or no destemming, but another wonderful pair of 2012s came from Vincent Paris, and the La Geynale cuvée (Robert Michel’s old centenarian plot) includes all of the stems. It was a glorious wine, and no Cornas seemed to evoke the undergrowth and wild plants up on the hill better than this one. Would the wine have been better or more articulate had all the stems been removed? I cannot believe so.

Written by Andrew Jefford

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