Download &
print (pdf)

All In: A Tasting of 100% Whole Cluster Pinot Noir



“I am a big fan of the things that whole cluster fermentation can bring to the finished wine. The aromatics can be thrilling and literally spine tingling. There can be a purity, depth and freshness to the nose that almost defies description. I suppose the case could be made that these wines are stylized. It could also be argued that these wines represent more of the site and are more minimalistic.”

Jeff Fink, Winemaker, Pence Ranch


The Burgundians have practiced stem inclusion for centuries because historically they had no de-stemmers, and many notable Domaines are still advocates of whole cluster fermentation. In North America, whole cluster inclusion in fermentation has been practiced by a relatively small number of devotees until recent years when there has been renewed interest in this winemaking technique. Most approach the use of whole clusters cautiously, limiting its use to less than 30% of the ferment, or add back 100% whole cluster fermented juice to the final blend of de-stemmed wine.

Whole cluster fermentation refers to the fermentation of intact clusters of grapes as they are picked from the vine with no intervention of machine processing, leaving all berries and stems intact. Many winemakers remove the stems because they have a high tannin content, and when unripe, can contribute green, vegetative or herbaceous aromas and flavors. The technique of whole cluster fermentation is a somewhat of a wild card, even a gamble, because the results are unpredictable. When successful, more desirable aromas (rose petal, spice) develop from enhanced carbonic maceration, more complex flavors emerge including forest floor, earth, tobacco, pepper and spice, a preferred bold and lengthy tannin structure results that enhances age ability, and the tannins released from ripe stems are often silky smooth.

Winemakers determine stem ripeness by studying the appearance (color, stiffness, and lignification) of the stem and rachis at harvest and tasting the stems. The importance of lignification is controversial and winemaker Matt Taylor (Matthew D. Taylor and Reuling Vineyard) told me that in California some lignification is observed but it is never complete, and he believes the choice of using whole clusters has more to do with the taste of the rachis (looking for gorgeous sweetness), rather than lignification. Jamie Kutch claims, "The necessity of lignification is a myth." There are no set limits for whole cluster inclusion and the percentage for those winemakers who employ whole cluster varies depending on the vineyard, clones and vintage.

I recently organized a tasting of 24 100% whole cluster Pinot Noir wines from California, Oregon and Burgundy in order to look at the current state of whole cluster inclusion Pinot Noir. Our group of tasters, which included winemaker Jeff Fink, were pleased to find that the typical undesirable aromas and flavors of whole cluster inclusion, such as vegetal and herbaceous characters, broccoli stem, bell pepper and wintergreen were not to be found at all in many wines and not in any significant degree in others.

All wines were decanted before tasting and were sampled in a single blind format. Each wine was vinified with 100% whole cluster fermentation unless indicated otherwise. The clear favorites of the group were the 2010 White Rose White Rose Vineyard Estate Dundee Hills Willamette Valley Pinot Noir and 2011 Kutch McDougall Ranch Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, but there were several outstanding wines. The wines were not scored.



Flight One


The wines in this flight showed more precise aromas and flavors and were characterized as serious.

2010 Domaine de Montille Volnay 1er Cru Les Mitans Burgundy France

13.0% alc.. · Moderately light garnet color in the glass. Aromas of red fruits, spice and pine, becoming more effusive over time. Very light and delicate, featuring flavors of red cherry, cranberry, savory herbs and mushroom. Firm tannins and bright acidity. Good.

2010 Presqu’ile Presqu’ile Vineyard Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir

13.3% alc., 350 cases. · Corked. The wine still had appeal on the palate with nicely ripened and well-spiced darker fruits backed by sinewy tannins.

2009 Rhys Alpine Vineyard Swan Terrace Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir

12.7% alc.. · Medium reddishpurple color in the glass. Shy initially, evolving nicely over time in the glass. Pleasing aromas of dark cherries and berries with a hint of exotic spice and rose petals. Delicious core of black raspberry fruit with a very subtle note of savory green herbs in the background. Juicy, with plentiful dry tannins. Very good.

2011 Kutch McDougall Ranch Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

13.6% alc., 345 cases. · Dark purple color in the glass. Very aromatic with hi-tone purple berry and black cherry, exotic spice, confectionary and floral aromas. Full-bodied and intense, with gentle tannins and an attention-grabbing, long finish. Extraordinary.

2008 Rhys Alpine Vineyard Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir

13.3% alc.. · Dark purple color in the glass. Complex nose offering aromas of forest floor, tea leaf, oak and shy darker berries. Despite decanting, the wine was not giving. Bold flavors of blackberry and plum wrapped in muscular tannin. Very earthy with an intense, sweet fruit-driven finish. Good.

2008 Bishop Creek Cellars Yamhill-Carlton District Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

13.3% alc.. · Moderately dark reddish-purple color in the glass. Aromas of wild berries, forest floor, pine resin and oak. Full-bodied and rustic with a plethora of blackberry, plum and cassis fruit flavors enrobed in firm, but soft tannins. Good.

2010 White Rose White Rose Vineyard Estate Whole Cluster Dundee Hills Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

13.3% alc., 97 cases. · Moderately light reddishrose color in the glass. Lovely nose with scents of fresh cherries, sandalwood, vanilla, exotic spices and floral highlights. The aromatics leap out of the glass. Delicious red cherry core with tamed, fine-grain tannins, and a long spiced cherry finish. Bravo! Knowing a Dujac wine was in this flight, everyone thought this was the Dujac wine since the aromatics reminded of Dujac. Extraordinary and one of the clear favorite wines of this tasting.

2004 Domaine Dujac Chambolle Musigny 1er Cru Les Gruenchers Burgundy France

13.0% alc.. · Moderate reddish-purple color in the glass. Very little fruit on the nose that features a leafy, green and oaky theme. Much better on the palate with a tasteful array of flavors including plum, berry, and dark chocolate. Serious tannins, but not hard, and a beguiling fruit-filled finish. Good.

2011 Sandhi Wenzlau Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

13.0% alc.. · Dark purple color in the glass. Intense aromas of black cherries. Soft and juicy on the palate with moderately concentrated flavors of black cherry and blackberry wrapped in powdery tannins. Finishes with noticeable sappy fruit. A fruit dominated wine that shows little whole cluster influence but is nevertheless enticing. Very good.


Flight Two


The wines in this flight were generally wild and fun in nature.

2010 Matthew D. Taylor Michaud Vineyard Monterey County Pinot Noir

14.0% alc.. · Moderately light reddish-purple color in the glass. Nicely perfumed with fresh black cherry, floral and spice aromas. On entry, the mouth coating black cherry fruit makes an impression, as does the spicy, fruity finish. The texture is smooth and comforting, driven by focused dry tannins. Thoroughly pleasing. Outstanding.

2010 Thomas Fogarty Windy Hill Vineyard Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir

13.6% alc., 50 cases. · Moderately light reddish-purple color in the glass. Welcoming nose with bright aromas of dark cherries and berries, spice, sandalwood and rose petals. Mid weight, sweet and sappy flavors of black raspberry and black cherry, caressed by tame, dry tannins. Very juicy with bright acidity and some finishing intensity. Outstanding.

2010 Flowers Sea Ridge Vineyard Block 11 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.0% alc., 140 cases. · Medium reddish-purple color in the glass. Shy nose offering delicate aromas of plum and oak. Discreetly concentrated core of well-spiced and oak-kissed plum and black raspberry fruits clothed in fuzzy tannins. A saline character underlies this wine. Velvety on the palate with a succulent finish. Outstanding.

2007 Freestone Vineyards Quarter Moon Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

13.5% alc.. 67% whole cluster. · Dark reddish-purple color in the glass. I have sampled this wine on several occasions, thoroughly enjoying it each time, and this bottle was atypical. The nose offers very ripe, raisiny fruit with hints of spice, sap and dill pickle. Relatively awkward on the palate with very ripe tasting fruits and firm, aggressive tannins. Withhold judgment.

2009 Windy Oaks Estate Limited Release 100% Whole Cluster Schultze Family Vineyard Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir

13.9% alc., 173 cases. · Moderately light reddish-purple hue in the glass. Enticing aromas of exotically spiced cherries, potpourri and oak vanillin. Delicious core of black cherry fruit embellished with baking spice and complimentary oak. Very seductive and beautifully composed with a dreamy texture and an explosive finish. Outstanding.

2010 Byron Whole Cluster Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir

13.8% alc.. Mt Eden clone. · Deep, dark purple color in the glass. Lovely aromas of fresh black cherries with coffee-laced oak. Still young and somewhat withdrawn, but showing bottomless plum and blackberry flavors laced with smoky oak and clothed in generous tannins. Should benefit from more cellar time to integrate the oak and tannins. Great potential. Very good.

2008 Z’ivo Whole Cluster Project Eola-Amity Hills Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

13.7% alc.. · Moderately dark reddish-purple color in the glass. Very shy nose initially, opening slowly to reveal pleasing floral aromas with hints of purple fruits and spice. Very drinkable, mid weight offering with luscious, sweet-edged plum and blackberry fruits backed by firm tannins, finish with some aplomb. Very good.

2011 Sandler Wine Co. Boer Vineyard Chalone Pinot Noir

13.7% alc.. · Moderately dark reddish-purple color in the glass. Aromas of chocolate covered cherries, root beer and soy sauce. Delicious core of cherry pie glaze, hitting the mid palate with a vengeance and finishing with good intensity. A hint of chocolate brownie adds interest. Very soft in the mouth and easy to cozy up to. Very good.



Flight Three


The wines in this flight had more extraction with copious plush fruit and more California styled. Many would pair well with steak.

2011 Laetitia Estate Whole Cluster Arroyo Grande Pinot Noir

14.7% alc., 330 cases. · Moderately dark reddish-purple color in the glass. The nose is really captivating, featuring aromas of black cherries, rose petals, exotic spice and Snicker’s bar. Rich, sweet-edged, sappy core of dark red and black fruits with an intense finish. A very sexy wine that displays exquisite balance. Outstanding.

2010 Brewer-Clifton Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

14.7% alc., 1870 cases. · Moderate reddish-purple color in the glass. A little over the top ripeness wise with a nose infused with port aromas. Mid weight flavors of black cherry, cassis and raisin. Very big and sappy with some sinewy tannins and a fruit-driven finish displaying a bit of heat. Decent.

2009 Cristom Eileen Vineyard Eola-Amity Hills Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

14.5% alc.. A high percentage of whole cluster but not 100%. · Moderately dark reddish-purple color in the glass. Intoxicating aromas of dark cherries and berries with notes of exotic spices and bacon. Incredibly plush and velvety on the palate with a tasteful well-ripened dark fruit core, plenty of spice, and tame tannins. Outstanding.

2006 Tantara Solomon Hills Vineyard Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir

Cleanskin. Clone 777. · Dark reddishpurple hue in the glass. Aromas of black cherries, black raspberries and spice. Pushes the ripeness envelope with big, bold dark fruit flavors. Nicely balanced tannins and welcome juiciness, the wine has noticeable verve. Good.

2010 Melville Terraces Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

15.2% alc., 465 cases. · Very dark purple color in the glass. The nose offers hi-tone aromas of dark red and black stone fruits and sandalwood. A hedonistic wine with uncommon intensity of purple fruits, finishing with a charge of sweet, very ripe, sappy fruit. Not my thing, but well done in its style. Very good.

2009 Native 9 Rancho Ontiveros Vineyard Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir

14.5% alc.. · Dark reddish-purple color in the glass. Plenty of oak shows up on the nose which features dark red and black fruits and spice. Velvety and plush on the palate with a plush core of sweet-edged fruit, finishing with a little heat. Good.

2009 Calera Selleck Vineyard Mt. Harlan Pinot Noir

14.1% alc., 200 cases. · Moderately dark reddish-color in the glass. Aromas of ripe berries, red roses, sassafras and a slight green note. Luscious essence of fresh black raspberries with an incredibly intense and long finish. A little herbal in character with firm, dry tannins. Very good.



Conclusion


The decision to use significant whole cluster fermentation is dependent on a range of deciding factors including region, vineyard, clone and stem ripeness. It is not easy to get it right. When the decision is made to go “all in,” that is, 100% whole cluster, it is a gamble that can pay off in big rewards. The risk is well summarized in the poem “That Little Girl” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. An excerpt says it all:


When she was good,
She was very, very good,
And when she was bad she was horrid.


Wineries in this Article
Share