What are Whole-Cluster Wines?
Brian Branco - Certified Specialist of Wine
As Spring approaches and temperatures begin to warm up, many of us are seeking new wines to sip outdoors with friends. A good companion for patios and picnics may be a wine made via whole-cluster fermentation. Many are easy to sip chilled, bursting with energy and freshness. They carry bright fruit flavor flavors, complimented by a touch of savoriness. While there are many serious cellar worthy examples, many people are popping the corks now. This brings us to the main question:
Why are these whole cluster wines so dangerously drinkable?
Let’s go over what this method of winemaking is, which grapes you’re likely to see using it, and, most importantly, how it will affect the wine in your glass.
What is it?
Whole cluster fermentation is a traditional method of winemaking around before de-stemming machines. Wineries forego de-stemming of the grape clusters or add them back to the must after de-stemming. The grapes may be crushed by a machine or your feet or skip crushing altogether before proceeding on to fermentation via the winemaker's choice of fermentation vessel. Wineries can opt to use a certain percentage of whole cluster by combining de-stemmed and whole cluster grapes in the fermentation vessel or blending them later on in the aging process.
Why include whole clusters?
Some grape varieties and vineyards can show detectable aromatic or textural differences from the whole clusters at as low as 25% included. But some others require much more whole cluster for it to be noticeable. The crushing of the berries is also an important key in the flavor and aromas of the wine. If there is no crushing involved, the wine may undergo some carbonic maceration/whole berry fermentation (fermentation inside the berry). This is a method of winemaking made famous in the Beaujolais region of Burgundy used on Gamay grapes to create young fruity wines. Some of these bright fruit flavors may also happen to some degree in whole cluster winemaking as the cap of grape skins and juice will usually be punched down by hand or pumped over. During this, many of the berries will remain whole. The textural and aromatic differences from whole berry fermentation are separate from the whole cluster character, but the two tend to combine in some way during the whole cluster winemaking process.
Which grape varieties use Whole-Cluster Fermentation?
It has been a common method in the Rhône Valley and in Burgundy for many generations while exploding in popularity over the last decade in the New World. It is most common with grape varieties like Syrah, Pinot Noir, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Gamay. Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc typically avoid whole cluster methods as the grape itself already contains larger amounts of herbaceous flavors from chemical compounds known as methoxypyrazines. Producers feel the addition of stems would exacerbate this quality as they contribute some green notes as well.
It is, however, a controversial topic among winemakers and wine tasters on their preferred method of winemaking. Some feel the stems are part of the site's character while some feel it detracts from the grape and site's character and gives off too much “stemmy” quality. In almost every region that it is implemented, you will see producers on both sides of this debate. Just like everything else in winemaking, winemakers strive to achieve a balance based on patterns they see in their winemaking career, vintage variation, and how the grapes and stems from that vineyard present themselves.
With climate change, warmer regions are using these stems as a dimension of freshness to add to the wine. Although the stems actually increase the pH by adding potassium to the must (lowering acidity), in the mouth it gives energy and added complexity that is quite enjoyable in varieties like Syrah and Pinot Noir.
What will using whole clusters do to my wine?
First and foremost, the inclusion of stems will change the texture in the mouth dependent on the percentage included. It will give a silky texture to the wine providing more finesse in the final product. If you taste many high percentage whole cluster wines, you will start to notice the tannin sensation they provide and how it’s quite different from a wine whose tannins are mainly derived from new oak barrels, seed tannins (Nebbiolo), or grape tannins (Cabernet). It is a little more sappy as opposed to drying and astringent. For grape varieties like Pinot Noir which have lower tannin, this can enhance the structure of the wine in the mouth.
Herbal aromas of tea, mint, oregano, white pepper, and forest floor are just some of the common flavors stems give us in whole cluster wines. If uncrushed berries were kept in the ferment, you may also get bright, candied fruit aromas. Many whole cluster wines tend to be paler in color compared to de-stemmed wines. Those stems are soaking up some of those color pigments (anthocyanins) leaving you with a lighter wine. You may even see a pattern in some wines that correlates more stem inclusion to lower alcohol. It’s crazy what a few small decisions can make in the winemaking process!
Here’s what you can expect to see, smell and taste in high % whole-cluster wines:
Silkier, Velvety mouthfeel
Lighter, paler color
Looking to experience more whole cluster wine in your life after this article? Join our Pinot Noir Wine Club or keep an eye out for any new Rhône varieties in our wine shop!
Author Bio: Brian is a graduate of the Institute for Enology and Viticulture in Walla Walla, WA, and a Certified Specialist of Wine via the Society of Wine Educators, Brian will be working his 3rd harvest this fall in a new region, the Willamette Valley. He feels there is always something new to learn about when it comes to the world of wine and that's what keeps it exciting. He hopes the industry will carry on being more inclusive and less pretentious giving everyone the opportunity to enjoy the world's greatest beverage.