An Introduction to Whole Cluster at Raptor Ridge
As Thanksgiving weekend approaches, we are looking forward to another release of one of our 2014 vintage Pinot Noirs. On the heels of our October Flight Club release, consisting of 2014 Shea Vineyard and 2014 Gran Moraine Vineyard, we are excited to offer a wine from our own vines: the 2014 Estate Whole Cluster Pinot Noir.
As the name suggests, whole cluster fermentation refers to the addition of grapes still attached to their stems into the fermentation vessel. Each cluster of grapes is held together by the pedicels (the growth immediately attaching the individual grape to the stem) and the rachis (the central stem emerging from the fruiting cane and binding the cluster of grapes). Along with the biological ripening of grapes, these stems transform over the growing season as they develop chemical compounds called lignins. As lignification progresses, stems lose their pliant and tender green qualities, darken to a deeper hue of greenish brown, and more closely resemble the wooden texture of the canes of the vine.
The addition of “under ripe” grape stems into a ferment risks imparting green, vegetal aromas to the resulting wine. Fortunately, the use of a crusher/destemmer for red grapes allows producers to remove these undesirable flavors in the case of stems which are green and undeveloped. Warm and dry vintages, however, offer the occasion for whole cluster fermentation, which can provide remarkable flavor characteristics. Raptor Ridge joins a host of producers in the Willamette Valley working with whole cluster, aiming toward delicate spice and tannin in their wines. I asked Scott about his motivation to produce a whole cluster bottle: “When you think about it, destemmers have only been available in modern times, about the last 60 years. So, vintages for 1955 or older are mostly 100% whole cluster. The grapes were loaded into fermentation vats and the vintage was treaded out. Tasting some recent Oregon wines where a percentage of the ferment was whole cluster, I became curious. Since about 2005, I have tested-out the effects of adding whole clusters into my fermentations at varying degrees.”
Our 2014 Estate Whole Cluster is drawn from three blocks, and is composed mostly of Pinot Noir clone 114, with a small percentage of Pommard. We observed these blocks to have plenty of sun exposure, increasing the likelihood of ripe, lignified stems. Scott explains what about 2014 lent itself to the whole cluster experiment: “Like the 2015 to follow, the dryer the vintage, the less “sap” that is flowing into the stems and rachis. In dry years, one gets the spice and ripe tannins into the ferment that produces the sought aromatics and silky palate feel. If the growing season is not dry, the vines remain in a vegetative state where using the whole cluster may produce unwanted herbaceous, green flavors.”
After harvest, Scott and Kevin carefully layered whole cluster with destemmed grapes in the fermenters, including 15% whole cluster on average. The overall percentage of whole cluster used in such fermentations varies among Willamette Valley producers. Scott: “My past experience is that, with whole cluster ferments, a little goes a long way. We don’t want this to be a stand-out feature. Rather we want the technique of whole cluster to support the style of Pinot noir: silky texture, complex aromas of spice and flowers, and long finish.”
After nine months in barrel, the finished wine combines two hallmark characteristics of whole cluster pinot noir. First, the inclusion of ripe stems supplies an appealing tannin profile, which ties together the velvety and broad texture of the wine. These tannins will contribute to the maturation of the wine, but also make it quite appealing in its youth. The inclusion of whole cluster also enables the process of fermentation within intact berries. This is one of the features most often cited by producers of whole cluster as producing fruity and floral aromatics in finished wines. The distinctive qualities of whole cluster fermentation should be apparent when compared to the forthcoming 2014 Estate Pinot Noir, or other wines from the 2014 vintage. Scott has also suggested working whole cluster into Raptor Ridge Vineyard Designate wines: “it is most important for this to enhance the true characteristics of the vineyard rather than overtake the wine as its own dominant feature.” We look forward to seeing what the next vintage offers us, and, in the meantime, how the 2014 Estate Whole Cluster evolves in the bottle.
(grape cluster image: www.youcellar.com)
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