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Anson: Whole bunch winemaking shakes up Bordeaux

There's a new fashion in town and it could pay dividends in a Bordeaux 2016 vintage currently being picked following weeks of drought, says Jane Anson.

You might remember that not so long ago, Chateaux Angélus and Pape Clement were putting on demonstrations for groups of journalists of de-stemming grapes by hand.

Lines of women in gleaming white gloves with violet-stained fingertips stood around tables in quiet corners of the vineyards, heads bent with frowns of concentration. It was pitched as the ultimate in haute couture winemaking, leaving not a trace of green matter to sully the purity of flavour.

No wonder, in his excellent 2012 World of Fine Wine article on the subject, journalist Jamie Goode noted that whole bunch vinification has become increasingly fashionable world over… with the notable exception of Bordeaux.

The accepted wisdom behind this is that the Bordeaux grapes of merlot, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon have too much vegetal/green flavour in their varietal DNA (specifically a molecule known as pyrazine) to withstand the use of stems that can lead to bitterness in the final wine.

But things are changing.

There is today a small but notable band of Bordeaux winemakers who are questioning whether the use of stems might just have come of age in Bordeaux.

It is something that several high profile winemakers are experimenting with in both Burgundy and the Rhône. Advocates include Aubert de Villaine at DRC and Jeremy Seysses at Dujac.

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Bordeaux’s early adopters

Leading the Bordeaux charge is Château Carmes Haut-Brion in Pessac Léognan, which in 2015 used stems for vinifying a full 45% of its crop.

Guillaume Pouthier, the winemaker at Carmes, worked in the Rhône Valley before arriving in Pessac, and has taken full advantage of his experience there.

‘Any green-looking stalks were removed,’ said Pouthier, ‘but the rest we left as whole bunch clusters.

‘We find that careful use of ripe stalks, particularly with the cabernet franc and merlot grapes, increases sapidity, drinkability and elegance. Flavour-wise, it imparts a distinctive salinity and freshness.’

The technique at Carmes is highly specific, with destemmed berries and whole bunches layered in the vat (‘like a millefeuille’ says Pouthier) to allow the juice to naturally fall through the architecture created by the stems.

‘The principle is to have the minimum of intervention in the vinification, and to concentrate on an infusion, like tea, rather than a pumping over of the juice’.

Dig a little deeper and you find other experiments going on. Also in Pessac Léognan, Fabien Teitgen at Smith Haut Lafitte confirms that they have recently tried using a percentage of intact bunches on a small amount of the crop. ‘This usually means around 25–30% of bunches in certain vats, especially with merlot,’ he says. ‘I choose parcels of merlot with a very good level of ripeness (which means a redish-brown stem) and the results show a promising difference of tannin, freshness and tension. Individually perhaps these wines are a little austere but they work great in a blend’.

Whole bunch at the First Growths?

The idea is even getting some attention from the First Growths.

Château Margaux began ever so softly with the 2009 vintage – and I mean softly. Traditionally the property leaves a fraction (reportedly 0.05%) of stems in the ferment, and this trial increased that to just over 1%.

Philippe Bascaules, ex-winemaker at Château Margaux who is now at Inglenook in Napa, explained to me this week, ‘For more than 100 years, winemakers in Bordeaux have wanted to remove the stems and today optical sorting does a perfect job. The question we wanted to answer at Chateau Margaux was do we want to remove 100% of the stems or should we accept a small amount in the tank? The conclusion was that technical perfection (total absence of stems) can in fact lower the quality’.

‘However,’ he was quick to add, ‘that is not the same thing as specifically adding stems to improve quality. I don’t believe that they should be used to correct something like over ripeness or high alcohol. Grapes can have freshness and balance when they are grown on great soils and are picked at the right time.

I think that Cabernet Sauvignon is fresh enough and tannic enough so that stems are not necessary, although clearly it can be different with syrah or Pinot Noir’.

Ask for long enough about this subject in today’s Bordeaux, and you will keep coming back to two names: Stephane Derenoncourt and Nicolas Thienpont.

Derenoncourt is consultant at Carmes Haut-Brion, and both men work across a number of (mainly Right Bank) estates that are playing with different interpretations of what to add and what to leave behind.

Most typically Derenoncourt and Thienpont prefer whole grape not whole bunch winemaking – which means removing the stalks but not crushing the berries. In 2015 they did a trial at Patrick de Lesquen’s Chateau Berliquet in St-Emilion of fermenting young merlot vines leaving around 15% of stalks in the vat.

Cyrille Thienpont who makes the wine at Berliquet says, ‘I found the results convincing. The aromatic effect was not brilliant at the beginning of the ageing, with slightly herbal, black-tea smells, but I re-tasted this week and found the improvement in structure and freshness fairly remarkable. As a technique to help young vines become more expressive, I can see the potential’.

Another approach is tried by Chateau le Puy in Francs Côtes de Bordeaux. The estate’s Harold Langlais says they keep a ‘thin layer of fresh stems in the space between the cap and the top of the vat to keep everything fully submerged during vinification. Given the quantity of stems used, it does not influence the taste of the wine, but it stops the grape skins being in contact with oxygen’.

The 2016 vintage is going to be particularly interesting to watch as far as this trend goes. Harvest is fast approaching, and it’s been a long hot summer. Can a careful use of stalks help preserve some elegance and freshness in the wines?

Thienpont says, ‘My experience with the Berliquet trials last year has made me believe stalks could be interesting in years like this, when the wine risks the effects of a very hot summer, particularly for young vines or those planted in sandy soils that could do with a touch more structure’.

‘This type of winemaking increases the perception of freshness,’ says Pouthier. ‘It emphasizes the violet and iris character that can be so lovely with cabernet franc. It takes a lot of time and attention on the part of the winemaker – notably because it increases the amount of press wine, as not all the juice in the berries is released during fermentation. But the resulting quality makes it worthwhile’.

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