The Whole Cluster Question

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Taking advantage of our dry California conditions, we’ve recently pushed the envelope of whole cluster fermentation. Sashi has increased the percentage of stems each vintage beginning in 2011. Originals Syrah now ranges between 2/3 and ¾ stem inclusion and Ruben’s block remains 100%.
Without rainfall and irrigation all summer, by the time we harvest, the stems are lignified to a yellow-brown. Instead of astringent green character often found in “stemmy” wines, our lignified stems add a woody backbone to Syrah’s structure with hints of Eucalyptus and herbs.

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We love the concept of whole cluster fermentation – The method allows us to incorporate one more element of the vine, one more element of the vineyard’s terroir, into the wine. Because of this, I feel woody stems win out over the use of new oak – barrels shipped from France – especially since stems impart savory flavors instead of the tell-tale Oak sweetness.

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2015
Due to a cold April and May combined with the prolonged drought, 2015 will likely yield the lowest tonnage since the frost-reduced 2011 vintage. The grapes are tiny and possess very little juice. There is no doubt that Intensity will be the operative descriptor for the 2015 vintage.

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The tiny berries will lead to high levels of tannin and firmness. Because of this, we plan to reduce the percentage of stem inclusion. Too many whole-clusters might push the already intense wines over the top to the realm of unapproachable, creating wines not enjoyable for a decade.

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Controlled Experiment
With the introduction of our concrete fermenters, Sashi usually de-stems a small portion of Syrah that is easily crushable. After foot trodding, there is enough juice to begin pumping over the cap. The result is that each lot has a mix of de-stemmed and whole-cluster fruit.

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Because we want to see an overall reduction in whole-cluster fermentation this vintage, in 2015 we plan to ferment several lots completely de-stemmed while we will leave a few fermenters 100% whole-cluster. The difference will allow us to compare the final lots, as we plan to bottle these test lots to taste over time.

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These 2015 test lots could prove pivotal to the long-term direction of our house style. However, the most important asset in winemaking is willingness to adapt to vintage conditions. If a suppler vintage – like 2014 for instance – comes along, we will most likely revert to high levels of backbone-lending stems once again.

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