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.

Go Wild!

The label says ‘Wild Ferment’ in big red letters. So, is this something special we ought to know about? Well, something interesting: yes; but something special: not really.
Before the middle of the 19th century and Louis Pasteur’s work, all wines would effectively have been ‘wild ferment’. Indeed, the earliest wines almost certainly happened in this way – by accident when some grapes were picked and left somewhere warm and the yeasts naturally present in the vineyard reacted with them to produce a sort of crude and basic wine. So, a wild ferment simply means using the naturally occurring yeasts.
The alternative to a wild ferment is the use of cultured yeasts. This really only took off in the 2nd half of the 20th century when the popularity of wine expanded and most bottles were bought from supermarkets. The new customers demanded a consistent product – not something that was always possible with wild ferments – and, as a result, many producers turned to cultured yeasts that could be controlled and standardised to give a more predictable outcome.
But others thought that using cultured yeasts destroyed any sense of ‘terroir’ – the distinctive taste of the individual vineyard – and have remained with (or gone back to) using wild yeasts instead. These producers are in the minority today hence the specific mention of the words on the bottle label.
And the wine itself? Delheim’s Chenin Blanc is a fresh, grassy white from Stellenbosch in South Africa (Wine Society, £10.95). The attractive herby nose is followed by quite a full and complex palate. There’s subtle spicy, savoury flavours from partial barrel fermentation and a few months left on its lees (the dead yeast cells that keep working even after the fermentation has finished). And plenty of ripe melon and peach, too. All topped off with a long mouth-filling finish.
So, does the wild ferment make a difference? It’s difficult to say but I found quite a distinctive character about this wine that says more than ‘this is a simple Chenin Blanc’. And it’s a real bargain at just over a tenner.