2018 Bordeaux and whole bunch fermentation

by Wine Owners

Posted on 2019-04-08


Much has been said of the hot, drought conditions of 2018 from July onwards and the consequent high alcohols, higher than normal pHs and high polyphenols (colorants and tannins) that resulted in dense, rich, darkly coloured wines.

A warming planet we are told is likely to get warmer and wetter – in which case the sort of challenges posed by the weather in 2018 are likely to become a more common occurrence. Might whole bunch fermentation be a rational response to these increasingly extreme conditions?

Whole bunch fermentation is a bit of a nouveauté in Bordeaux, practised by producers with a leaning towards Burgundy style and weight.

There are a number of arguments in favour of whole bunch:

  • Stems act as a sponge in fermentation and leach colour out of the wine by absorbing some of the colorants. In a really hot Bordeaux vintage such as 2018 this helps make the wine’s robe less black and more attractive.

  • Stems in a very hot vintage are more likely to be fully lignified and a higher percentage can be used without imparting unripe flavours into the wine.

  • Stems give a perception of greater freshness, apparently because of additional molecules that have ‘attractively astringent properties’. In reality they don’t actually lower the pH; they tend to do the opposite since the pH of stems is higher than in grapes.

  • Stems marginally lower alcohol levels in the finished wine.

Two estates in Bordeaux stand out for their practise of vendanges entières:

Chateau Rouget in Pomerol is owned by Domaines Labruyère who famously own Jacques Prieur in Burgundy. The wine was exceptional, very rich yet beautifully balanced, a gorgeously controlled mid-palate and with alcohols of 14 degrees (low for 2018 given a 85% merlot dominant blend) and with a pH score of 3.62. That’s low for the vintage, where other Chateaux were boasting about how low their pHs were at 3.65-3.69. Small differences in pH can make a very significant perceived difference.

Bordeaux 2018 - Chateau Rouget - Wine Owners

Chateau Carmes Haut Brion appears to also be a fan of Burgundian weight and style, and have used whole bunch for the last few vintages very successfully, having produced a shockingly good 2017. In a much hotter year than any of the preceding 4 vintages how would it fare? Very well, with a perfumed nose, croquant fruit, stacked for sure, yet with real presence and poise fin de bouche.

In our view both these Chateaux produced wonderful wines in 2018, and insomuch make an argument for how whole bunch can work well in a hot vintage where balance and constraint are the watchwords, and where finesse and focus are much harder to achieve than in a more normal, temperate year.


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