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.

To Decant or Not?

I often mention in a blog about having decanted a wine. But, it wasn’t until a reader left a comment for me that I realised that none of the blogs currently on this site’s archive actually explains what I mean by decanting and when and how you might do it. So, thank you, ‘Miss Judy’, for the prompt and I hope this answers your question.
Basically, there are 2 reasons for decanting: one is visual, the other is about how the wine will taste. Let’s start with the visual. You’ve got a lovely decanter and want to show it off to friends when you invite them round to dinner, so you tip the wine from the bottle into the decanter and put that on the table instead. Or, more practically, if you think that your wine is likely to have some sediment in it, you might want to decant it so that you can pour it easily without worrying about ‘bits’ going into your glass – words like ‘unfined’ or ‘unfiltered’ on the label are hints that there could be sediment in the bottle.
The other reason for decanting is if you think the wine would benefit from some aeration to soften it a little. So, if you open a wine and find it’s very tannic and harsh, then it might be one for decanting. (Tannin is that drying sensation you feel on your gums and the sides of your mouth when you drink some red wines). Aeration is more likely to benefit younger, chunkier reds such as a Shiraz, Zinfandel or Châteauneuf du Pape but possibly not a Beaujolais or Chilean Pinot Noir. At this point, I should say that there are arguments between professionals about the merits or not of aerating wine – my advice is: try it; if it works for you, do it, if not, don’t.
So that, briefly, is the answer to ‘when’ and ‘why’ you might decant. Now let’s turn to ‘how’: If your wine has been lying down, any sediment will have gathered on one side of the bottle. Carefully take it from the rack and gently stand it upright, leaving it in this position for a few hours if you can. This will allow any sediment to settle in the bottom of the bottle. When you’re ready to open it, uncork the wine and, with a light behind the bottle (traditionally a candle, but a lamp is better), slowly pour the wine out watching the bottle for when the first signs of any sediment start appearing in the neck. At that point, stop pouring. The wine in your decanter will be clear and bright and the sediment is left behind in the bottle. Of course, if there’s no sediment, this whole process is a lot easier!
Perhaps the only other point to mention is how long in advance should you decant? If you’re decanting for aesthetic reasons, it really doesn’t matter but, for aeration, my guide would be: the bigger the wine, the earlier you open it, but, typically, an hour. And, beware if you have any very old, frail wines – they are unlikely to benefit from decanting and you could destroy them.
I hope I’ve covered everything but, if not, as ‘Miss Judy’ did, please leave a comment in the box below and I’ll try and reply.

Where does Tannin come from?

Where does tannin come from? That was a debate my wife was asked to adjudicate on recently; one person said that it came from the grape skins, another was equally sure it came from wooden barrels. As you might expect, Hilary knew the answer and, fortunately in this case, was able to tell both protagonists that they were correct.

Let me first define what we mean by tannin: you can’t actually taste it but it’s that drying or astringent sensation you feel on your gums and the sides of your mouth when you drink many red wines, especially young reds made with grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz. Much more rarely, you might also find some tannin on a rosé and even on the odd white – I’m thinking mainly of the current fashion for ‘orange’ wines – white wines made in the same way as a red. And you get the same feeling if you drink tea that has been left brewing too long.

harvest 2017

The reason you find tannin in red wines more than in whites is down to the different way the wines are made; reds are fermented with the juice in contact with the skins in order to extract colour and, as a by-product, the process extracts  tannins from the grape-skins too. For most white wines, on the other hand, the juice is normally separated from the skins before the fermentation takes place and so tannin from that source is left behind.

Ch Dauzac barrel

But, as one of the people in the discussion said, tannin can also come from wooden barrels. Not all wines are made or stored in wood but, if they are, and especially if the wood is new, then you might find a similar, drying tannin sensation (although many people simply regard it as part of the oaky taste). How to distinguish between grape-skin tannins and wood tannins in a red wine is one for the experts and, unless you’re particularly sensitive to them, isn’t something that most people need worry about.

But, if you open a wine and find it is too tannic for your taste, simply decant it and leave it in contact with air for as long as you can before drinking it. And, let it accompany protein-rich food. These 2 ‘tricks’ will help and make the tannins appear ‘softer’ and the wine will seem more harmonious and attractive.

The reasons behind the differences in taste between one type of wine and another are covered in more detail in a piece I’ve written for the Stoke Lodge website.  Go to http://www.bristolcourses.com and type in ‘Wine’ in the key words box and follow the link.

The Meaning of ‘Oak-Aged’

A couple of weeks ago in Bristol Wine Blog I wrote about an oak-aged wine. It seems I didn’t explain the term ‘oak-aged’ or say how can you tell if a wine tastes ‘oaky’?

The words relate to the fact that wine has to be made and stored in some kind of container before it is bottled ready for sale and the material used for that container will have an effect on how the wine tastes. Fermentation and storage tanks will often be made of stainless steel, which is inert, that is it has no flavour of its own.

Ch Dauzac Fermentation tanksWines made and stored in such tanks (pictured above) will taste fresh and clean and fruit flavours are most likely to predominate; typically, we might talk about the wine tasting of citrus or melon or tropical fruits. The same would be true of other neutral containers such as those made from concrete or glass.

Ch Dauzac barrelOn the other hand, the winemaker might use wooden barrels – large as above or much smaller – (usually made of oak, but other woods like chestnut can sometimes be used) to ferment or store the wine in. Wood is not inert – the grain is very slightly porous; not enough to allow the liquid to seep out, but sufficient to allow tiny amounts of air in. This air softens the wine slightly and changes its character. Also, depending on the age of the barrel, the wood itself may have a flavour which is transmitted into the wine; this is the ‘oaky’ taste I referred to and can include flavours like cinnamon, cloves or other spices, vanilla, toast, cigar boxes or pencil shavings. In all these cases, the flavours of the fruit should still be there but they will no longer be the principal taste.

If you want to sample the difference, I suggest you get 2 bottles of Rioja – 1 labelled Gran Reserva and the other without the words Crianza or Reserva on the label and taste them alongside one another. The Gran Reserva will be the oaky one.

Final question: is an oaked wine better than an unoaked? It all depends on your palate but, for me, there is a place for both.