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2013 Pinot Noir Bien Nacido Clone 22
Santa Maria Valley
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Despite its déclassé image, I love Beaujolais—the fresh, fruity and sometimes forest-y and earthy red wine made from the grape variety gamay noir. It’s frequently fermented using the maceration carbonique method, where whole grapes are put in a tank and left alone to ferment—no de-stemming, no punching down the cap, no nothing! This lazy man’s winemaking method imparts a fresh, fruity character from the whole berry fermentation along with a green, earthy element from the stems.
I thought it would be fun to break out of my shell a bit and try making a maceration carbonique wine, and immediately thought of using the fruit from Bien Nacido’s “T” block, which for years was known as the gamay beaujolais clone of pinot noir. When genetic testing came along a decade ago it was proved conclusively to be a clone of pinot noir and unrelated to gamay noir. None-the-less, “T” block was recognized for its fruity gamay quality, so I thought it would be a good fit for this winemaking experiment.
Although my interpretation of a maceration carbonique fermentation wasn’t exactly like what’s done in Beaujolais—it still took my usual non-interventionist winemaking approach to an extreme—which is to say we did almost nothing! The fruit arrived at the winery, we prepared a tank and put a bucket of fermenting pinot noir in the bottom and filled it with whole clusters of grapes—nothing else was added. As the wine fermented we occasionally pumped juice from the bottom of the tank to the top to help extract flavor, but did no punch downs. When the fermentation was done we had difficulty getting the grapes out of the tank because there were still so many intact whole clusters. But as we pressed off (squeezed the last bit of juice from the grape skins) we knew the experiment was a success—the wine was already flamboyant and tasty.
Wanting to capture the wine’s unique character, I was extremely cautious getting it to bottle, simply racking (decanting) the clear wine out of barrel and bottling it without fining or filtration.
The result is a revelation.
The grapes were special, but the process made for a distinctively precocious and deliciously exotic pinot.
While manufacturing assumes that the goal is uniformity, the idea of craft implies a certain restless searching for perfection. And small scale winemaking is all about that search—being nimble and having the ability to change and evolve. It’s about that willingness to revisit ideas that have been thoroughly investigated before, in the event that conditions (or attitudes!) have changed.
In 1981 I worked the harvest in Burgundy (where pinot noir and chardonnay is made) for the Duc de Magenta, a tiny and very traditional winery located in Chassagne Montrachet near the city of Beaune. All the reds were made with whole clusters, that is to say the grapes weren’t put through a de-stemming machine prior to fermentation, as most modern red wines are today. The stems affect the wine in a number of ways, first and foremost the taste: whole cluster ferments give wines that are marked by a certain greenery that either brings complexity and interest or overwhelms everything else the wine may have to offer.
I have to say that the Duc’s red wines were on the stringy, green and harsh side and weren’t helped by whole cluster fermentation. Wines like his were the reason there was a big movement in the 1970’s, led by the famous Henri Jayer, to de-stem pinot noir in Burgundy and make softer, prettier wines. I still remember visiting him with Jim Clendenen after the harvest in 1981 and hearing him describe his conversion experience. As we tasted his ’78 Eshezeaux that was made without stems and his ’69 that was, he explained that when one tastes a grape it bursts with delicious flavor, and when one bites into a stem how bitter and green it tastes—and that simple analogy summed up how he felt about using stems in winemaking.
While Jayer made some stunning wines over the years, the debate about the use of stems hasn’t ended and there are partisans of whole cluster fermentations that continue to make fabulous wines today. When Jim and I came back to America and started ABC we emulated the Duc’s wines and produced good whites and reds made with whole clusters that were sometimes a little offbeat. I became a bit stem phobic and avoided using them for decades, but some of the young guys I work with kept asking me why we didn’t use any stems and I overcame my stubbornness and started experimenting, the 2013 Pinot Noir Bien Nacido Clone 22 is one of the results.
The very traditional method I learned at the Duc’s (often called whole cluster fermentation) involved pouring whole clusters into a large open top tank and getting in and mashing up the fruit with one’s feet. As the fermentation proceeded the grapes were punched down (mixed with a stick that has a plunger on the end to mix the cap of skins and stems that float with the juice down below). This punching down extracted a lot of character from the stems. For this pinot clone 22 wine we used a different technique that is popular in Beaujolais called maceration carbonique, where whole clusters are used but very little mashing or punching down is done, so less of the greenery one gets from the stems is imparted to the wine. And because so many of the grapes remain intact, some fermentation actually takes place inside the berries and that produces a delicious fruitiness.
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