Sometimes, if you’re fortunate enough to drink Burgundies with generous friends who kindly share great wines with decades of cellar aging, you experience a wine whose profound beauty and sheer pleasure stops you in your tracks with emotion. Such was the case this week with the 1996 Domaine Dujac Echezeaux.
The first captivating glimpse of this brilliant wine in the glass hinted at something marvelous. Its limpid, shimmering ruby color stood in stark contrast to more deeply colored preceding wines, the delicious ’05 Domaine Michel Gros Vosne-Romanée “Clos de Réas” 1er Cru and Pascal Lachaux’s full-bodied ’02 Domaine Arnoux-Lachaux, Vosne-Romanée “Les Chaumes” 1er Cru.
The first sniff of the ’96 Dujac Echezeaux’s heavenly, complex perfumes promised more pleasure. Delicate red fruit aromas and pleasant spicy notes came from the glass. It was enthralling and ethereal.
The memorable opening sip fulfilled expectations. Astounding purity of red fruit flavors with full concentration unfolded with terrific finesse and uplifting freshness and energy. The wine’s superb balance and silky, refined tannins carried the lingering, resonating finish. It was a profound wine with transparent fruit, good depth and elegant understatement, and it was a sheer pleasure to drink.
So what could account for the pronounced contrast in styles between the Dujac Echezeaux and the first two outstanding, but less ethereal wines? Gros and Lachaux certainly are conscientious producers. They meticulously tend their Pinot Noir vines with labor-intensive, hands-on approaches without the extensive application of synthetic chemicals. And the quality of their premier cru terroirs are arguably comparable to Echezeaux despite its Grand Cru status.
A key difference, however, between the wines occurred during fermentation. Dujac used significant whole cluster fermentation with stems, a traditional fermentation method that persisted across Burgundy well into the late 1980’s. The approach came into question because many growers at the time did not discard damaged, rotted fruit and unripened stems. Unpleasant “green” wines with rough tannins resulted especially in difficult vintages. In reaction, beginning in the late 1970’s the late Henri Jayer made the then bold move of completely removing stems before fermentation. He also advocated allowing long maceration of the juice on the skins. The changes enabled Jayer to produce deeply colored, rich wines featuring luscious, intense fruit, fresh acidity and smooth tannins. As the style gained favor with critics and consumers, the destemming approach spread in Vosne-Romanée with well regarded, dedicated producers such as of Anne Gros, Michel Gros, Pascal Lachaux at Domaine Arnoux-Lachaux, Jean Grivot, and Sylvain Cathiard.
Meanwhile other prominent growers—namely Aubert De Villaine at the iconic Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Lalou Bize-Leroy at Domaine Leroy and Jacques Seysses of Domaine Dujac in nearby Morey Saint Denis—continued fermenting wines with high percentages of whole grape clusters including stems. They meticulously sorted bunches to ensure using only undamaged, ripe clusters with fully ripened stems in fermentation. They limited yields in the vineyards and tended the vines precisely in what Aubert De Villaine refers to as a “haute couture” approach. The resulting wines, as shown by the ’96 Dujac Echezeaux, consistently stand the test of time. They scale the heights of excellence and refinement while giving memorable pleasure.
When used properly, fermenting whole clusters with the stems has several advantages. As Clive Coates, MW, noted in “The Wines of Burgundy” (2008), the approach can give more tannic structure, fresher acidity and more complex flavors. The presence of stems also creates better aeration for a more even fermentation. Generally the process results in lighter hued, less densely colored wines.
These days in Burgundy, the young—and even not so young—generation of winegrowers increasingly embraces using more whole cluster fermentation. For example, the talented Charles Lachaux at Domaine Arnoux-Lachaux used high percentages of clusters across the board in the 2014, 2015, and 2016 vintages from Vosne-Romanée, Nuits-Saint-Georges and Gevrey-Chambertin.
“For me it creates more seductive wines that suit my taste. It’s the style I prefer,” Charles says. “But with whole bunches you have to be careful to avoid greenness and harsh tannins in the wines. You must be more intuitive in the winemaking, And it creates the opportunity for more emotional wines. That’s why I like it as well.”
Jeremy Seysses along with his winemaker wife, Diana Snowden-Seysses, now takes the lead at Domaine Dujac, and they favor using whole cluster fermentation tailored to the context of each vintage’s personality and conditions. For example, the ripe 2015 vintage warranted higher percentages of whole cluster fermentation.
Similarly at Domaine Rougeot in Meusault, winegrower Marc Rougeot and his sons used 100% whole cluster fermentation with stems for their delicious 2015 Domaine Rougeot, Volnay Santenots 1er Cru. The wine’s gorgeous ruby color offers raspberry aromas with spicy notes opening to pure red fruit flavors. Smooth tannins carry through the long, fresh finish.
In 2014, a solid vintage where fruit was not as ripe across the board as in 2015. the maestro of Volnay, Nicolas Rossignol of Domaine Nicolas Rossignol, achieved dazzling results using 50% whole bunch fermentation for his Volnay “Clos des Angles” and Volnay “Chervets”
Even Domaine Méo-Camuzet‘s Jean-Nicolas Méo who worked very closely with Henri Jayer has experimented with fermenting about ten percentage of whole clusters and stems for some of his outstanding wines.
“Fermenting with whole clusters is generally not my style or taste, but the experiments show that the whole bunches and stems give some extra tannins and balance,” he notes. “On the other hand, using whole clusters with stems does not permit a cold soak of the grapes prior to fermentation which is very important to us. So you gain on one end, but lose on another.’
In southern Burgundy in the Mâcon, Domaine des Vignes du Maynes winegrower Julien Guillot used whole cluster fermentation with stems for his terrific 2015 Vignes du Maynes, Bourgogne “Cuvée Auguste.” The wine comes from organically grown 50-year old Pinot Fin vines. And in addition to using whole clusters and stems, he wine fermented with indigenous yeasts and was aged in neutral barrels. Bottling occurred with minimal added sulfites. Pure strawberry and earthy aromas waft from the glass. Fresh, crunchy red fruit flavors and fresh mineral traits follow. Soft, elegant tannins frame this brilliant, authentic wine’s fruity, fresh finish.
All this said, the question of whether to ferment with some percentage of whole clusters inclduing stems boils down to a matter of each winegrower’s personal style and taste. Part of Burgundy’s abiding charm and allure lies with the growers’ diversity of choices. The trick lies in knowing and appreciating the styles so you can spend your hard earned resources on wines delivering your preferred pleasures.