Whole-bunch fermentation is the Burgundy-inspired practice of including some portion of grapes still attached to their stems into the fermenter. It’s a technique that well-seasoned winemaker, Michael Glover has a sizzling analogy: “If a destemmed Pinot Noir is an eye fillet, then a whole-bunch Pinot Noir is a juicy rib-eye, cooked on the bone with more tannin and flavour.”
If the recent explosive growth in whole bunch fermented pinot noir is anything to go by, lovers of dark flavours are being well rewarded by a modern take on an ancient craft. Devotees say it adds perfume, density and tannin, while some say potassium in the stems adds liveliness but dilutes colour and even suggest that wines from cooler vintages benefit more than those from warmer ones.
Before this new wave of whole-bunch obsession, Stonier Wines were focused on vineyard typicity and site expression with its monopole program that began in 1999. The unique terroir of the Windmill vineyard led the winemakers to include eighty per-cent whole-bunches to the 2003 Stonier Windmill Pinot Noir. So attractive was this wine in barrel, they decided to add a portion to the 2003 Stonier Reserve blend as well.
At the annual Stonier International Pinot Noir Tasting held in Sydney in 2005, a gathering of two-hundred Pinotphiles saw one wine soar above the pack of Burgundies and New World Pinots. As the evening tasting concluded, James Halliday AM and Len Evans AO OBE celebrated a wine they described as: “Beautifully perfumed…that doesn't have the fingerprints of the winemaker all over it... a wine made in the vineyard.” The packed Wentworth Ballroom lit up when the hero wine was unveiled as the 2003 Stonier Reserve Pinot Noir. With twenty-five percent whole-bunches and a forty-five-dollar price tag, this wine outshone two Grand Cru Burgundies and soon achieved cult status in the Australian wine trade as 600 dozen were snapped-up in eleven days.
During vintage, nature puts a natural squeeze on pinot noir grapes when bunches are loaded into small, open fermentation tanks and allowed to go through wild yeast carbonic maceration. The whole-bunches then spend an extended time on skins as the gentle art of pigeage (French for ‘punching down’ or naked grape stomping) replaces a modern plunger to build colour and tannin. Whether they finish as ten-percent, one-hundred percent, or something in-between, tasting a 100% whole-bunch wine from barrel is not for the faint-hearted. In youth, these wines can look tight with an acid thread from which the tannin, oak, herbs and little berry flavours hang. In time, all elements will fuse into a highly structured wine characterized by far greater cellaring potential.
The 2015 Yabby Lake Block 6 (fifty per-cent whole-bunch) is a beautifully balanced Pinot Noir that shines radiantly a few years after bottling, having achieved a silkiness and harmony with elements that were once separate – oak, acidity, tannin – now fully integrated with rich cherry fruit. This wine reveals herbal and dark berry flavours with smooth tannins of such length it suggests cellaring for up to fifteen years. Reminiscent of Burgundy, it's a wine of wild perfumed grace.
On a Plunge Wine Tour, we can visit cellar doors on a day-long Festival of the Whole-Bunch. Micro-makers like Garagiste, Hurley and Principia are tasted along with wines from senior producers like Stonier, Crittenden and Moorooduc Estate. We visit vineyards and look at wines in their spiritual home and appreciate the complexity, depth of flavour and cellaring potential that whole bunches provide.