Friday, February 15, 2013

In Pursuit Of Balance In Pinot Noir Wines

Jamie Kutch, Jim Clendenen, Ehren Jordan, Jordan Mackay
This was the second seminar of the In Pursuit Of Balance event in Los Angeles this month - read about the first one here.  This seminar concerned Pinot Noir and the use of whole cluster fermentation in the making of wines from those grapes.  San Francisco wine writer Jordan Mackay moderated this panel.

From the event program,
 "Whole cluster fermentation (leaving the grapes on the stems during fermentation) is a controversial technique when it comes to Pinot Noir. A winemaking process that dates back centuries, the practice fell out of favor with the advent of modern destemmers, as including stems in fermentation has a major impact on the finished product."  
But some California winemakers figured if it is good enough for some of the more elite producers in Burgundy, it's good enough for them.

An essay contained in the program, by Wolfgang Weber, pointed out that
 "the genius of Pinot Noir is found in subtlety and poise, in its graceful and transparent expression of the soils and climate in which it is grown.  Balance in Pinot Noir enables those characteristics to reach their highest expression in a complete wine where no single element dominates the whole."  
In other words, balanced.

The wines sampled in the seminar were not your typical "big California wines."  The ripeness of the fruit - along with the alcohol content - can be held in check by the inclusion of stems in fermentation.

The panel consisted of four winemakers who believe in the potential of balanced Pinot Noir in California.
Ehren Jordan (Failla Wines) explained how whole cluster fermentation is accomplished.  "Pick cluster, bring to winery, throw in the fermenter."  Getting more serious, Jordan said, “Whole cluster fermentation is, for me, a game-time decision.  If the situation at harvest is right, with brown stems, let’s do it!”

Jordan’s Failla Peay Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2006 used 60% whole cluster fermentation, and tastes extremely earthy.  His Failla Whistler Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2011 is smoky and slightly tart.  Jordan believes whole cluster fermentation increases the ageability of a wine.  "Stem inclusion is also massively important in Syrah,” says Jordan. “Much like Pinot, Syrah can be a cool climate grape."

Jamie Kutch (Kutch Wines) concurs with that notion.  He cites some dangers of including stems in fermentation.  "You can end up with an herbaceous, stemmy wine."  The upside, he says, is "Complexity; it keeps the wine from being too sweet.”

"Shallow soil, with small berries, is better for whole cluster fermentation than deep, rich soil where the berries are big," says Kutch.  This type of grapevine has a better chance of having brown stems, which are better for whole cluster.  All the winemakers on the panel say they look for sites that are not vigorous where the yield is lower and the berries smaller, with brown stems.

Kutch says, "I consistently get my lowest scores from Wine Spectator from my best site - McDougall - so I'm making this wine for me."  Those of us in the audience got to enjoy some, too.  The pair of Kutch wines were 2012 barrel samples, but the drew the distinction between whole cluster and destemmed very clearly.  The Kutch McDougall Ranch Pinot Noir 2012 was 100% destemmed, and the ripeness of the fruit was apparent.  The Kutch McDougall Ranch Pinot Noir 2012 100% whole cluster barrel sample had a tart edge to the fruit.  Kutch will blend the two together for the finished wine, but it will be mostly whole cluster fermented.

Jim Clendenen (left, Au Bon Climat) began using whole cluster fermentation in the early ‘80s. "It can be a green, bitter wine if the site does not support it," he says.  “I'll take less color in the wine from whole cluster fermentation in exchange for the benefits in aromatics and taste."

Clendenen nearly rose to his feet to exclaim, "If we'd been sitting here in the ‘70s we'd be serving broccoli juice, because that's where California Pinot was back then!  We have much better farming methods and winemaking technique now."

Clendenen’s Au Bon Climat Talley Rosemary Arroyo Grande Valley Pinot Noir 2009 is 100% whole cluster fermented, and shows a slight tartness on the nose and palate.  The wine has really beautiful acidity, and is lovely despite the fact that the fruitiness is suppressed by whole cluster fermentation.  The Au Bon Climat Bien Nacido Vineyard Historical Vineyard Collection Pinot Noir 2009 utilizes 50% whole cluster with the Santa Maria Valley fruit.  It’s slightly less tart, but still with beautiful acidity.

Besides looking for the right vineyard for whole cluster fermentation to work, it also has to be the right vintage.  A cooler than normal growing season will not allow sufficient browning of the stems, and therefore whole cluster is rarely attempted.  The 2011 vintage from Santa Barbara County is one in which it’s rare to find a Pinot using whole cluster fermentation.

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