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To De(stem) or Not to De(stem)

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Feb 13, 2007 9:09am ET

Sometimes I’ll be cruising along in a blind tasting of red Burgundies and a wine will throw me a curve ball. Aromatically, it is fresh and distinctive, with floral and spice notes (sandalwood comes to mind most often) along with the fruit. Its texture is typically softer, without lacking structure or concentration. These characteristics are a result of using the stems, or whole clusters, during fermentation.

Fermenting with whole clusters isn’t easy. In the beginning, you can’t punch down because the solid mass is too hard and you can’t pump over because there’s no juice. The stems leach out color, acidity and alcohol. And if extraction isn’t gentle, green, bitter aromas and flavors occur. But those who retain the stems swear by the gentle oxidative process and the draining properties when the wine is ready for pressing. The producers also like the aromatic complexity and the freshness the wines retain as they evolve.

Several domaines I visited on this trip use this technique, and one experimented with it for the first time in 2005. Today, I want to share my experience at two of them: Domaine Dujac (and its négociant range Dujac Fils & Père) in the Côte de Nuits and Domaine Chandon de Briailles in the Côte de Beaune.

Everything was in bottle at Dujac, where Jeremy Seysses was clearly pleased with the results. “In 2005, we had beautiful fruit and an easy extraction, everything you need to make really good wine,” he says. Of the three négociant village wines, I prefer the Morey-St.-Denis and Chambolle-Musigny. The Morey is aromatic, very floral, with a lovely silky black cherry flavor. The Chambolle is seductive, offering violet notes along with blackberry and long on the finish.

There is also a juicy, refined Vosne-Romanée Beaux Monts, packed with spice, red cherry and blackcurrant flavors. This is under the négociant label because it is from both domaine and purchased fruit.

The Romanée-St.-Vivant reveals a hint of blackcurrant leaf, coffee and blackberry aromas. It’s intense and concentrated, yet ethereal at the same time, with terrific harmony and length. However, I slightly preferred the Chambertin, with its scented blackcurrant and black cherry aromas, focused fruit and regal stature. It ends with a long mineral aftertaste.

Of the domaine wines, the Chambolle-Musigny Les Gruenchers shows plenty of rose, sandalwood and black currant notes woven into a silky texture. The Vosne-Romanée Les Malconsorts is more leafy and herbaceous in aroma for the moment, yet full of brooding black cherry and plum tones supported by firm tannins. The finish is very long and finely textured.

A reticent Charmes Chambertin exhibits richness and a cherry note backed by hefty tannins. The Echézeaux is all coffee, spice and black cherry, turning meatier in the mouth, finishing with chocolate and cocoa powder accents.

The Clos de la Roche displays Asian spices and a combination of black cherry, juicy fruit and a firm structure, then picks up mineral on the complex finish. The Clos St.-Denis is simply gorgeous, with sappy black cherry, coffee and spice flavors, lush texture and expansive finish. A powerful, muscular red, the Bonnes Mares is compact right now, but deep and concentrated, with a long mineral finish.

At Chandon de Briailles, Claude de Nicolay-Drouhin and her team had bottled three of the four whites. Two reds were being fined using egg whites so we skipped those. The remaining wines were approximate blends prepared from cask.

I like the Pernand-Vergelesses Ile des Vergelesses for its spicy, red fruit aromas and peppery, mineral-tinged flavors. The wine comes from 15- to 60-year-old vines, so the fermentation is done with 80 percent whole clusters because the quality of the stems from the youngest vines is lower than those from the older vines.

Tasting the three Corton reds is an exercise in terroir. The Maréchaudes is round and inviting, with sweet, fresh cherry notes on the midpalate and fine, soft tannins. An altogether precocious wine from deeper clay soils lower on the east-facing slope. Directly above it lies Les Bressandes. The wine from this site shows lovely aromas of fraises de bois (wild strawberries) and is very juicy, with more density and structure, but also elegance, building to a long finish.

Above the southern half of Les Bressandes is Clos du Roi. The soils are thinner here, and the site is more exposed to the wind. The vines are 60 years old, and a large part of the crop suffers from millerandage, a condition at flowering where some berries are small and seedless with thicker skins, and are thus more flavorful. The wine is less showy and more powerful, with more aggressive tannins. The flavors range from black cherry to mineral and spice. This needs time.

“I think the whole bunches really add freshness,” de Nicolay-Drouhin explains. “They give a natural aeration during the fermentation.”

The Corton Blanc, from parcels in Bressandes, Chaumes and Renardes is all lemon, pear and butter with a creamy texture. The Corton-Charlemagne, still in barrel, is tight and steely, with intense apple and mineral flavors that build to a lengthy finish.

Alex Bernardo
Millbrae, CA —  February 13, 2007 1:16pm ET
Perhaps since Henri Jayer, destemming and other techniques he practiced have become widespread. But before the crusher's arrival whole-cluser was the traditional Burgundian method. Wine made this way, in particular Dujac's and Chandon de Briailles', tend not to show well young as they're more austere and both tannins and acid are very evident. I love the purity in the wines of Dujac and Chandon de Briailles, though, and I know with time these wines are glorious. Today's palates though may not be patient enough with such wines.On Dujac, is Jeremy Seysses' wife the winemaker now? It looks like Dujac's wines extend well-beyond Morey St. Denis. Which ones of these are the newly purchased parcels?
Bruce Sanderson
New York —  February 14, 2007 11:42am ET
Alex,My fear with the great 2005s is that many will be drunk too young, denying wine lovers, especially those new to Burgundy, the rewards of well-cellard, mature Pinot Noir. Dujac and Chandon de Briailles are good examples, particularly the latter, because of the lack of new oak for the reds. These wines require time to hone all their facets and complexity.My understanding is that Diana Seysses works together with Jeremy and her father-in-law Jacques Seysses in making the wines at Dujac, in addition to her family's wines at Snowden in California.With the 2005, you will see some new wines under the Dujac Fils & P¿ label, from the newly purchased parcels: Nuits-St.-Georges Aux Thorey, Vosne-Roman¿Beaux Monts, Roman¿St.-Vivant and Chambertin.
Joe Cuomo
New York —  March 4, 2007 4:56pm ET
Bruce- It's interesting to hear you worry about 2005 Pinot Noir being "drunk too young." We exchanged a few posts on "The Trimbach Way" thread, and you had recommended that the 2003 Trimbach Riesling Cuvee Frederic-Emile was ready to drink right now. "Coming from the scorching 2003 vintage," you wrote, "the [Trimbach] brothers felt that the wine was forward and round, therefore ready to enjoy." Well, Bruce, even though I did have reservations (I remember saying on the thread that just three years in the bottle was a bit young for this wine), I did take your advice and opened a bottle of the 2003. And I have to say that although the wine was drinkable, it was so closed and mono-dimensional, it seemed barely a step above mass-market plunk. Indeed, it seemed a complete waste of a potentially great wine. If this were an isolated incident, it wouldn't trouble me all that much. But on that same thread, you went so far as to make this generalization: "Trimbach's philosophy takes some of the guesswork out of when to drink, since they [the top cuvees] are released when the [Trimbach] brothers feel they are ready." This, I would argue, is simply untrue. The 1999 Frederic-Emile was still undrinkable last year, seven years after the vintage date. And the 2003 clearly needs at least another three or four years in the bottle. In addition to this, a similar kind of disparity is apparent in your drinking-window recommendations for German Riesling. I gave the example (on the Trimbach thread) of the St-Urbans-Hof Spatlese Ockfener Bockstein, which (unlike the Trimbach Frederic-Emile) is a delicious young Riesling upon release until about two years after the vintage date, at which time it usually closes up for a number of years before it matures enough to become approachable again. But you recommend that readers wait to enjoy the 2005 vintage of this wine (which is drinking brilliantly right now) until 2008, which is most probably after it will have already closed down.
Joe Cuomo
New York —  March 4, 2007 4:57pm ET
One more thing, Bruce- Recently, I discovered that Terry Theise also has reservations about your drinking-window recommendations. Indeed, Theise has this to say about your recommendations regarding Austrian Riesling and Gruner Veltliner: "Bruce Sanderson (who's a truly good guy) tells me he hesitates to indicate when the wines will be REALLY ready to drink for fear people will be intimidated and WON'T drink them. Well, let's see. Tell me if your blood runs cold." I have to say, Bruce, I agree with Theise here: you do seem to be a genuinely nice person, but your approach to drinking-window recommendations--especially when it comes to Alsatian or German or Austrian Rieslings--seems a bit of a disservice to your readers. I just wish you would reconsider this aspect of your otherwise fine work. -Joe

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