To Stem or Not To Stem is The Question

I knew sooner or later I would have to take on this subject. Since I have talked about it for years, I guess it’s time to lay it on the line. If a poll were taken amongst those considered to be some of the country’s most well known winemakers, most would not even consider using stems or the rackus of the grape cluster in their fermentations. They have little in the way of knowledge and are appalled at such heresy. If you asked someone what they think of D.R.C., that’s Domaine de la Romanee Conti, the holy grail of Pinot Noir from Burgundy, they would say, “It’s great.” But many have never even tasted that wine or Domaine Leroy, Dujac and the like. If they had tasted these world renowned wines they would say, “WOW! These wines are amazing – so complex! Some of the best I’ve ever tasted.” But tell them those great wines were made with stem inclusion (for years and centuries in DRC’s case) and they look dumbfounded.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from drinking great wine, then moving to making it is: you have to know what great wine is before you can pretend you’re one. Let’s put it another way. How can you make a great wine if all you’ve ever tasted in your life is mediocrity? If there was only one wine on the planet then that would be what wine was supposed to be! But thank goodness there’s not. It’s easy to say out of hand, “I don’t like stems” without realizing you might have a glass of wine in your hand that has been made that way and you’re enjoying the heck out of it. For those who have children: remember your child saying I don’t like that before he or she ever lifted up the fork? I rest my case. (Click Continued to Read More)

Whole cluster fermentation is as old as wine itself. There was no destemer when the first person allowed some fruit in a bowl too long and it accidently started fermenting. In the 1800’s there were no destemers unless you did it by hand. There are great wines from the 19th Century, such as 1870 Lafite and Latour or 1898 Romanee Conti. These wines are still alive and well! I have heard all the arguments against such things, “Your stems have to be ripe and we don’t achieve the ripeness that Burgundy does!” That’s the biggest crock of – well, you know! I have worked harvest in Burgundy; I have seen with my own eyes what the fruit looks like. The stems from some prominent producers are as neon green as any thing I have ever seen…so green that I would not care to use them. I asked the winemaker if they’re too green and he said, “The stem is fine; they ripen from the inside. So, we will use them.” Who am I to argue with one of the greats? Ripeness is a state of mind, however, as I have written about in the past. Throw a great Burgundy on the table with 50 parts free sulfur and green stems screaming from the glass, next to a domestic wine that has less of both and you’ll see the critic blast the domestic wine for having too much of both. It’s the label reader syndrome and it will never go away!  One more thing… when did Burgundy start achieving ripeness? Without sugar there would be no Burgundy because they add it to almost every fermenter. But that’s another subject.

What do stems add? For me there is a greater dimension, a lifting of the nose, bouquet from the glass. Floral characters not found in destemed wine and the addition of stem tannins which will, in the opinion of many, help the wine survive for a much longer time.

Do we always add stems? No, we don’t. But we do every chance we get. And what of the so called green flavors that are different than stem flavors? We ferment at very low temps allowing us to manage the amount of green flavors that would otherwise be pulled out of the rackus. Starting at 58 degrees and never achieving more then 75 degrees, we lower the chances of green tannins being sucked out by the heat.

At lunch the other day I was with an Australian Pinot producer that said the same thing to me over and over. “Your wines, Greg, have a purity and freshness that is very rewarding for me to taste.” After three hours of him picking what I like to call my brain, he found out we did a lot of whole cluster fermentation. “Why?” he asked. “Your wines are so fresh, so clean, so pure. Why?” My answer was, “Exactly!” When a box is built, whether it is painted, constructed of brick and mortar or fabricated in one’s imagination, it’s hard to get out.

My last story is my favorite. (As you see through any article, I do not include names!) I was sitting with one of the world’s great wine writers/critics and drinking some wine. We got onto the subject of stems. His response was, “I don’t believe anything but the fruit of the vine should be used for making wine. I’m not a big fan of stem included wines.”  When I reminded him the Pinot Noir he was drinking at that very moment (not mine) was indeed 100% whole cluster and he gave it a very high score, he turned and said, “Yea, I know. That’s the hell of it.”

Well, I’m on the record as they say and I can’t put the words back in my mouth. I suspect I have little in the way of regret however.



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