Whole Cluster Syrah
Those of you who have toured the Montemaggiore winery during harvest know the special care we take in destemming our Syrah, then painstakingly sorting out any stem pieces that try to sneak in. What you may not know is that we deliberately add whole grape bunches (including their stems) to the carefully destemmed fruit! In 2007, for example, we destemmed and sorted 75% of our Syrah grapes, then added 25% whole clusters to the same fermentation tank. Technically what we're doing is called a 25% "whole cluster fermentation".
Lise finds that whole cluster fermentations add depth, spiciness, and a velvety mouthfeel to our wines. As to why this happens, one theory is that since whole cluster fermentations don't break the skins thus are very gentle, the resulting longer and slower fermentations add character. Another theory is that the stems fill out the tannin profile of the wine to give a smoother mouthfeel. As with much of winemaking, however, there's no proof of what happens or why because the variables seem infinite and uncontrollable—thus winemakers like Lise just do what they believe is right. So it's a religious issue and you'll find vociferous people on both sides.
Whole cluster fermentations are not atypical with Pinot Noir (e.g., Domaine de la Romanee Conti), but they are just gaining notoriety in the Syrah world. Never one to shy away from experimentation, Lise tested whole cluster fermentations in 2006 with a single lot of Syrah. That successful experiment led to more in 2007, and we expect to continue experimenting with percentages in future vintages. To appreciate why whole stems are beneficial yet stem pieces are detremental, consider cooking with garlic: using the entire clove imparts a sweet, nutty, mellow undertone without the intense pungency of crushed garlic.