Winemakers love to talk about “terroir expression” – a slippery phrase, but for me it readily translates into variety, regionality and interest. Small artisan producers often adopt and justify traditional, low intervention techniques to achieve that expression. For example:

Contentious statements? Hot air? I don’t believe so. But there’s one technique seemingly beloved of natural winemakers that leaves me cold. When it comes to making a wine that says anything about its origin or grape variety, whole-bunch fermentation and close cousins carbonic and semi-carbonic maceration sound the death knell.CMcloseup

I won’t attempt a detailed technical description, when there are already so many good examples – like this one. But in short: true carbonic maceration requires carbon dioxide to be pumped into the fermentation vessel to remove oxygen, and aims to stop any conventional yeast-based fermentation occurring. Semi-carbonic/whole bunch is a hybrid process, where whole bunches of grapes at the bottom of the vessel start a conventional fermentation (they get squished by the weight, so that juice runs out, and fermentation begins with ambient yeasts). That naturally produces carbon dioxide, and the bunches above go through an intracellular fermentation as a result. This process is largely responsible for young Beaujolais’s typical flavours of banana, kirsch and bubblegum.

Why whole bunch?

Why are so many winemakers outside Beaujolais going down the whole bunch route? Well, it’s a great way of taming fiercesome tannins, and turning out a soft, easy drinking wine that can be cracked open just months after the harvest. And the fermentation can be completed in a mere 4 days. A cash-cow if you will. There’s nothing wrong with producers spreading the risk and ensuring they can earn a good crust, but I take issue with any distributor, retailer or wine educator who claims the resulting wine to be a marvelous expression of terroir – or representative of anything other than the winemaker’s need to get something on the shelves.

What about Beaujolais, I hear you cry – aren’t the illustrious wines of Morgon, Fleurie, Moulin-à-Vent et al. produced in exactly this manner? The answer is only a partial yes – First, the Beaujolais maceration traditionelle is very definitely in the semi-carbonic camp, avoiding the extremes of full carbonic maceration. Second, the more structured age-worthy Beaujolais crus not only have a significantly longer fermentation (Jean Foillard gives his Morgons 3-4 weeks),  but frequently have some barrel aging as well. Structure and tannins are often prerequisites for long aging, and the great crus in Beaujolais can age for well over a decade.

 Everything in its place

Context is all. I can enjoy the frivolity of the “whole-bunch style” in a young Gamay, but it is totally incongruous in a Tannat from the Madiran or a Grenache from Languedoc. If that sounds inflexible, ask yourself if you’d really want to drink a heavily oaked Cabernet Sauvignon from Alsace or a featherlight Pinot from Napa Valley? Regions do best when they play to their strengths and typicities, not just to a winemaker’s ego or the bank manager’s heart.bottles at terroir al limit

It worries me when winemakers talk about whole-bunch fermentation as if it were some kind of holy grail, to achieve even less intervention, to somehow take an even more hands-off approach and achieve a “truer” representation of their terroir. At least this was how Terroir al-limit‘s Dominik Huber expressed it.

This young, brilliant Priorat estate makes some sensational wines. Huber focuses on Carignan, which he feels is the best performer in this hot region. I wouldn’t disagree, but when he poured a barrel sample of a whole-bunch fermented Carignan (2013) with the remark “I may consider fermenting all my wines in this way in the future,” I was distraught. It had nothing of the region’s defining character, no tension and no backbone.

Huber is not alone, and I am in no sense singling him out. But this is an example of how the quest for less intervention, or more “naturalness” can sometimes be counterproductive. This isn’t the preamble for an anti-natural wines piece. I remain a diehard wild yeast nut. If I owned a car, the back window sticker would say “I brake for amphoras.” I believe filtration is the devil’s own work.

But please, if you have cabernet sauvignon, syrah, nebbiolo, xynomavro or any other strong-willed red variety growing in your vineyard, don’t dumb it down to a “nouveau” wine and let your terroir expression go up in smoke.

8 Responses

  1. D. Levin

    Wouldn’t disagree in general… but speaking “New World” style, isn’t it interesting to try a true cool climate Syrah like those from Carneros, Santa Barbara, or Mendocino with whole cluster fermentation? It can produce a blend of Old & New World styles that meets your definition of structure, while offering earlier approachability. Try not to condemn the style entirely… a good winemaker can use the technique to explore new styles that can have some traditional appeal.

    • Simon Woolf

      You have a point Douglas. I guess what I was railing against are the very obvious, “nouveau” style wines that some producers make.

      Whole bunch, like any technique, can of course be used judiciously and sensitively so that it delivers something interesting – and again, I’d cite the example of the Beaujolais Crus. It seems that extending the fermentation by another week or so makes all the difference, not just in terms of more structure, but also getting away from the overtly “carbonic” flavour profile

  2. Larry Schaffer

    I do think you need to make a distinction between those who are working with whole clusters but treating them ‘gently’ to allow for carbonic and those, like myself, that do whole cluster fermentations but make sure to break open the berries by foot stomping so that carbonic maceration does NOT take place. In my case, there is an increase in bitter compounds and tannins, accentuating mouthfeel components and altering and adding to the aromas in the finished wine.

    I’ll also take ‘exception’ to the ‘conventional wisdom’ that ‘wild yeasts produce more complex ferments.’ To me, this is easy to say, but very difficult to actually ‘prove’ unless winemakers are able to do side by side ferments in a controlled way to ‘prove’ that whatever is ‘different’ in the native ferment final wine is actually due to the ‘wild yeasts’ and not to other factors during fermentation or elevage .. .


    • Simon Woolf

      Fair points Larry. I agree that whole bunch fermentation can encompass a wider range of wine styles, however I find that often when winemakers or marketeers advertise the fact that whole bunch has been utilised, the style is simplistic and bubblegum-like.

      Yes, the idea that wild yeasts produce a more complex ferment is contentious, however I think Jamie Goode’s chapter on yeasts (in “Authentic Wine”) puts forward some pretty concrete evidence that this is the case. His point being that the wide variety of native yeasts which participate early on in a wild ferment do all lend flavour characteristics – even if those yeasts then die off, and Saccharomyces cerevisiae takes over to complete the job.

      Last September I attended a fascinating masterclass at Marilena Barbera’s winery in West Sicily. She offered up two incomplete ferments, of Petit Verdot if I remember correctly. The same grapes picked on the same day, and then one with added yeast and one not. The wild yeast ferment had bags more character and interest, even if it did smell kinda funky!

      • Larry Schaffer

        Interesting points indeed. And yes, there is no doubt that with ‘native’ ferments you have different yeasts ‘contributing’ different things during the early part of primary fermentation, until Saccharomyces takes over and finishes the job. The question is whether any of the by products of the early aspects of fermentation remain with the wine as a finished product or whether they are ‘minimized’ by the rest of the fermentation process or, more likely, during the aging process . . .


  3. Todd Trzaskos

    Having experienced “nouveau” style wines with the banana and bubblegum signatures, which I do not readily enjoy, I’m still not inclined to immediately blame the fundamental process, for what may be particular to Gamay, or a function of industrial scale, or maybe just less than stellar wine making. I’ve made a few batches of wine using a partial-carbonic method with a blend of Chilean Malbec, Carmenere, and Syrah, from the Curico Valley.

    Yes, the carbonic wines show more fruit, and less tannin than the reserve blend of the same exact grapes. The “nuevo” bottles are certainly approachable at three months and great by nine, where the reserve takes at least a year to settle, and hits its stride by three. Beyond that there are differences are in depth and intensity, but the flavor profiles are recognizable as having the same source. No banana, no buble gum. Plum, cherry, cassis and a eucalyptus note, that to my nose, is recognizable as distinctly Chilean.

    The work of Patrick McGovern has done on wine in the ancient world leads me to believe that grapes piled in to fill a large clay vessel, then sealed shut so that the forces of magic or the gods could do their work, would within a couple of weeks time, yield a drinkable, albeit partial un-fermented, partial-carbonic maceration wine…quite “naturally”.

    • Simon Woolf

      From my limited knowledge and experience, the key really does seem to be in a longer fermentation time. I don’t think Gamay is to blame – the carbonic macerated Tannat I had was every bit as annodyne as a poor Beaujolais Nouveau