Whole Bunch

One sharp-eyed reader spotted the words ‘Whole Bunch’ on the label of the Bellingham Roussanne I blogged about a couple of weeks ago and wondered what the significance was.  There’s a clue in the small print which mentions ‘gentle treatment’, ‘soft handling’ and ‘delicate extraction of the juice’. 

It all starts in the vineyard:

When grapes are harvested by hand, the pickers usually cut off whole bunches, not just individual grapes (you can see the stalks in the picture below); the main exception to this is when high quality sweet wine is being made, when the harvesters will go through the vineyard several times, only snipping out the ripest grapes from the bunches each time.  Machine harvesting is different: this works in the same way as shaking a tree to get apples off, so just the grapes are dislodged and caught in a net – the stalks stay on the vine (although this method also yields some leaves, bits of twig and anything else that’s loose on the vine, which has to be sorted out later).

Now let’s move to the winery.  Normally, if whole bunches have been picked, they will be tipped into a machine called a Crusher/Destemmer – which does just what the name suggests: gently crushes the grapes to begin the fermentation process and removes the fruit from the stems.  Bellingham – and many other producers – do things a little differently; they miss out the destemming and gently press the whole bunches to release the juice.  The stems not only form a cradle round the grapes, protecting them from harder pressure, they also act as runways enabling the juice to be collected more easily.  The idea being that higher quality juice produces better wine.

An extended version of this process is also used for some red wines and is particularly suited to varieties such as Pinot Noir.  Here, after crushing, the whole bunches are tipped into the fermenting vessel – tank or barrel depending on the winemaker – and the stems remain in there with the grapes until the fermentation is complete and the wine is drained off leaving the solid material behind.  The stems add tannin (so this method isn’t used with thick-skinned varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon) and so increase the complexity of the wine – and hopefully the drinking pleasure.

That explains, in brief, what we mean by ‘whole bunch’.  So much from 2 simple-looking words.

Rotten Grapes make Great Wine!

Ask a wine lover to name a sweet wine and chances are the reply will be ‘Sauternes’. This golden nectar is made from a blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes (with occasionally a little Muscadelle as well) in a tiny area 6 miles long by barely 4 miles wide a short drive south of Bordeaux. Both the location and the grape varieties are vital to making Sauternes the wine it is.

Sauvignon Blanc is a naturally high acid variety and so adds refreshing ‘lift’ to the wine which, without it, could be dull and cloying. But it’s the Semillon that holds the real key. It is a very thin-skinned variety and, as such, is very susceptible to rot. Rot is normally an enemy to winemakers, introducing off flavours into wine, but in certain circumstances, a particular type of rot becomes a friend. And in the warm, damp, humid conditions often occurring during a Bordeaux autumn, this so-called ‘noble’ rot (or botrytis) can be found most years.

Botrytis works in a strange way. It attacks the berries and makes dozens of pin-prick holes in them. Add a little sunshine and, as the grapes are warmed, the moisture inside them starts to evaporate through the holes, concentrating the sweetness in the berries so that, when they’re picked and sent to the winery for fermentation, the yeast struggles to cope with all the sugar. It converts some to alcohol, but plenty remains to give a wonderful, luscious sweet wine.

Sauternes Ch FilhotThe most famous name of Sauternes, Château d’Yquem, sells for hundreds of £s a bottle, but the Château Filhot (pictured) is a remarkably good, elegant and affordable alternative, available quite widely including from Grape and Grind of Bristol for £12.99 a half bottle. Enjoy with desserts, of course (tarte tatin is a great match), but also with some blue cheese – Roquefort would be the traditional choice, but St Agur or the creaminess of a Dolcelatte would go well too.

Wine Glass Almost Empty!

Glass almost emptyAn almost empty wine glass – not the way I usually head my Bristol Wine Blog! – but that was my first thought when I read recent newspaper reports that a global wine shortage is in prospect.

Research carried out by Morgan Stanley suggests that wine lovers worldwide will soon be drinking more wine each year than is produced, resulting in shortages. They blame increased wine consumption, particularly in China and the United States, coupled with some poor harvests in several of the major wine producing countries in 2012 and 2013.

Just 10 years ago, things were very different. Over 7000 million bottles of wine a year were remaining unsold. Not surprisingly, producers cut back in an attempt to shift their surplus stock and some growers would have decided that their vineyards just weren’t economic any longer. As a result, output fell by almost 10% – and that was before the poor weather that has reduced crops in many parts of Europe this year and last.

At the same time, demand for wine in China has risen at a remarkable rate, quadrupling in just the last 5 years (albeit from quite a low starting point) – a trend that is almost certain to continue. And in the United States, too, wine drinking is becoming much more widespread.

But, read on! Things are not as bad as the headline would lead you to believe – are they ever?

There may be a few short-term problems as the historic surpluses disappear and we depend more on wines from the 2012 and 2013 vintages; prices are almost certain to rise a little. But those two poor years are very much the exception. If the weather in 2014 is better and normal levels of production resume across Europe and countries like South Africa and Chile continue to plant new vineyards, we’ll very soon forget any talk of a shortage.

And I’ve only mentioned China in terms of the population consuming rapidly increasing amounts of wine. The country is also becoming a very significant producer. Indeed from almost nothing 20 years ago, China is now thought to be No5 in the world. Not much is seen outside China yet, but, within the next few years, I expect that to change.

So, yes, we may find some of our favourite wines missing from the shelves for a little while; personally, I’d take that as an opportunity to try something different. But longer term, I see a rosier picture: my wine glass being half full – at least!