J’Accuse: Criminal Stem Inclusion Levels in 2009 Bouchard Red Burgundies

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What possesses people to take a beautiful ingredient and obscure its deliciousness with extraneous flavors taken from much lesser material? Who would go to all the trouble to buy some of Burgundy’s great terroirs–monopoles where gorgeous, minerally fruit has been grown for centuries–and dump a load of woody material into the fermentation, thereby obscuring the special fruit characteristics of the precious grapes? Why do so many makers of Pinot Noir these days think they’ll make a better wine out of the delicate and flavorful Pinot Noir grape by including a lot of stems in the mix? I for one don’t get it. I’ve ranted about this rising trend here before, and I’m afraid it’s time for another attempt to get the attention of those who don’t appear to love and cherish pure Pinot Noir fruit as much as others that what they are doing is, essentially, a crime. They are robbing Pinot Noir grown in some of the most favorable spots on the planet of its moment to shine. They are stealing pleasure from those of us who look forward to a new vintage from some of our favorite vineyards. In other words, WTF Bouchard?? Why did you feel it necessary dump in as much as 30 to 50% stem inclusion in your red Burgundies in the 2009 vintage (and similar amounts in 2008)? The results are a huge disappointment for someone who has loved these wines in the past, when they weren’t “vins de stem.”

So here are the facts about stem inclusion and Pinot Noir, and Burgundy in particular. Whole bunch fermentation, where grape berries are not destemmed, is a very traditional method for fermenting red wine, most commonly practiced in Burgundy. Whole bunch fermentation requires large vessels, preferably open-topped for punching down the cap, although pump overs are also used. On the plus side, the stems can help ease juice passing through the cap, which aids in oxygenating the must. Where grapes are entirely destemmed, more punch downs are typically needed. Inclusion of stems can also help extend the maceration period by depressing fermentation temperatures. On the down side, the stems can impart a lot of harsh tannin to the wine, as well as “stemmy” taste characteristics: green notes and flavors, ranging from camphor and various mints to green chili pepper to asparagus and green beans. Over time–five to ten years of bottle age–the tannins imparted by the stems can resolve some, and the green notes can evolve to “forest floor” and tobacco characteristics. Often, however, the fruit has totally dropped out by then. I do recognize that some people like these kinds of flavors; I prefer the pure red and blue fruit characteristics of the delicate Pinot Noir grape itself, along with the minerality engendered by the particular site in which it is grown. Stem inclusion also tends to result in lighter colored wines (e.g., Dujac red Burgundies), and reduces alcohol and acidity by small amounts.

The great majority of Burgundy producers currently destem, or almost entirely destem. The greatest Burgundy winemaker of my lifetime, Henri Jayer, entirely destemmed and argued against the use of whole cluster fermentation. Nonetheless, a couple of very influential, and high priced, producers use a substantial amount of stem inclusion: DRC and Domaine Leroy. The stemmy nature of DRCs has, for me, become very noticeable in recent vintages. It greatly detracts from their drinkability in the first few years after release, and I think makes them more tannic and less pleasurable than they otherwise would be even after several years in the bottle. Generally I find the stemmy quality less evident on Domaine Leroy offerings, which are already at the extreme edges of fruit concentration for Burgundy, but in weaker vintages, like ’06, it does become more noticeable. The fact that these producers, which are highly sought after and command some of the highest prices of any in Burgundy, use a high percentage of stem inclusion has apparently planted the suggestion with other producers, both in Burgundy and the U.S., that to make top-flight Pinot Noir, you should consider including some amount of stems.

Henri Jayer

Jasper Morris’s wonderful Inside Burgundy: The Vineyards, the Wine & the People, published last year, is the latest, most comprehensive guide to Burgundy’s vineyards, with a lot of information, as well, about the domaines. From that book I gleaned the following lists of Burgundy producers who destem versus those who use all or a substantial amount of whole cluster:

Destemmers: The Burgundy domaines that currently destem entirely, or almost entirely, include A-F Gros, Alain Michelot, Antonin Guyon, d’Ardhuy, Arlaud, Armand Rousseau, Arnoux-Lachaux, Bertagna, Bruno Clair, Bruno Clavelier, Chateau de Chorey, Chevrot, Claude Dugat, Comte Liger-Belair, Coste-Caumartin, Denis Bachelet, Dupont-Tisserandot, Emmanuel Rouget, Faiveley, Follin-Arbelet, Fourrier, Francois Parent, Géantet-Pansiot, Georges Mugneret-Gibourg, Gérard Mugneret, Ghislaine Barthod, Harmand-Geoffroy, Henri Boillot, Henri Gouges, Hudelot-Baillet, Hudelot-Noëllat, Jean Grivot, Jean-Jacques Confuron, Jean-Marc Boillot, Jean-Marc Pavelot, Louis Boillot, Louis Latour, Lucien Muzard, Marquis d’Angerville, Méo-Camuzet, Michel Gros, Michel Lafarge, Michel Magnien, Patrice & Michele Rion, Perrot-Minot, J-F Mugnier, Perdrix, Philippe Naddef, Philippe Charlopin, Pierre Damoy, Pierre Gelin, Ponsot, Robert Chevillon, Sérafin, Sylvain Cathiard, Taupenot-Merme, Thibault Liger-Belair, Tollot-Beaut and Vougeraie. These are the producers whose wines I’m going to continue to buy.

Whole Clusterers: The producers who use a significant portion of whole cluster fermentation are l’Arlot, Bellene, Bernard Dugat-Py, Cécile Tremblay, Chandon de Briailles, Chanson, Chassorney, Chateau de la Tour, Clos des Lambrays, Courcel, Dujac, DRC, Jean-Yves Bizot, Leroy, Prieuré-Roch, and Trapet. These are wines I’m not going to buy, because I buy Burgundy to taste the world’s greatest Pinot Noir, not red fruit obscured by a bunch of stems.

Depends on Vintage: The producers for whom it depends on the vintage are Clos de Tart, d’Eugenie, Georges Mugnier, Robert Groffier and Simon Bize. Buyer beware on these–find out how much whole cluster fermentation was used in a given vintage.

In California, Calera has been including stems for a long time, as has Melville, and Rhys has been including 50 to 100% of stems in their estate Pinot Noirs. I have tremendous respect for the palate of Kevin Harvey, proprietor of Rhys, and have recorded here his theory that in very shallow, rocky soils stems can get mature and soft enough to include without harmful effect on the wine. That said, other than his amazing ’09s that I barrel sampled, I have not been loving the Rhys estate Pinots with high stem inclusion. I’m willing to wait to see how they age, but they are not lovely creatures for drinking in the first couple of years from release (unlike the fabulous Chardonnays). He also once promised to taste me on barrel samples with and without stem inclusion, but that has not happened yet. At any rate, because of my high respect for Kevin’s palate and scientific method, and because his is still a relatively new project, I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that there is merit in his aim to include a large proportion of stems in his estate Pinots. Most of the California Pinot Noirs I have tasted over the years with more than 15% stem inclusion, however, readily show the negative impact of high stem inclusion. For what it’s worth, I will continue to identify those who are big on whole cluster inclusion here, so buyers can be fully informed in making purchasing decisions, and I will continue to share my opinions with these producers to their face. If you want to include a lot of stems in making red wine, I urge you to consider Syrah, which can greatly benefit from stem inclusion. When it comes to more delicate red grapes, and their sexy red and blue fruit characteristics, however, such as Pinot Noir and Grenache, kindly keep all that green material to a minimum. Is that too much to ask?

Before I conclude this particular rant, let’s turn back to Bouchard. Bouchard Père et Fils started back in 1731, and over the decades and generations that followed, the domaine amassed a staggering number of prime vineyard parcels, ultimately becoming the largest vineyard owner in the Côte d’Or. In 1995, the company was sold to Champagne-based entrepreneur Joseph Henriot. Some of the monopoles (single-owner vineyards) they own include Clos de la Mousse, Grèves Vigne de L’Enfant Jesus and Clos St-Landry. In this tasting of 2009s, a vintage with near perfect weather, I sampled one village level wine, four premier crus and one grand cru, the Corton-Le Corton. Because of the vintage, and my prior experience with a lot of these vineyards, I was expecting some heavenly young wines. The 2009 Faiveleys I have tried so far, for example, from comparable terroirs, were stunning, showing delicious fruit, definition and minerality. Unfortunately, the high stem inclusion was thoroughly evident in all of these Bouchard ’09s, with off-putting green flavors and major tannins on most. The one that will clearly outlive the immediate green qualities and develop into a still more complex and delicious wine is the Corton-Le Corton. I rated it 92 points; the Faiveley 2009 Corton-Clos des Cortons, by contrast, merited 96 points. The other Bouchard reds may not integrate all that tannin and green flavors before the red fruit characteristics drop out.

Following my detailed tasting notes below for these 2009s I have also listed my TNs for the wines I sampled last year from the 2008 vintage, which showed a lot of the same green and heavily tannic characteristics. As someone who has enjoyed glorious Bouchards in prior vintages, including memorable La Romanées from 1969 and 1988, and delicious Grèves Vigne de L’Enfant Jesus bottlings over the years, including, most recently 2002 and 2006, I am deeply dismayed at the domaine’s apparent absorption these days in the production of vins de stem, instead of great Pinot Noir.

Village

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  • 2009 Bouchard Père et Fils Chambolle-Musigny – France, Burgundy, Côte de Nuits, Chambolle-Musigny
    Medium dark ruby color; herbal, sous bois, earthy, oak nose; tight, sous bois, tangy, greenish red fruit, mineral palaate with grip; needs 2-plus years to integrate the stems; medium-plus finish (87 pts.)

1er Crus

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  • 2009 Bouchard Père et Fils Beaune 1er Cru Clos de la Mousse – France, Burgundy, Côte de Beaune, Beaune 1er Cru
    Medium dark ruby color; lifted, sous bois, underbrush, tart plum, pine needle nose; tight, sous bois, tart plum, stemmy palate with a hint of pepper; needs 2 years to integrate; medium-plus finish (88 pts.)
  • 2009 Bouchard Père et Fils Volnay 1er Cru Caillerets Ancienne Cuvée Carnot – France, Burgundy, Côte de Beaune, Volnay 1er Cru
    Dark ruby color; sous bois, lime skin, snap pea nose; tight, tart plum, oak, sous bois, mineral, black cherry, blackberry palate with depth; more accessible than the other ’09 Bouchards but could use 1 year to integrate; medium-plus finish (89 pts.)
  • 2009 Bouchard Père et Fils Nuits St. Georges 1er Cru Les Cailles – France, Burgundy, Côte de Nuits, Nuits St. Georges 1er Cru
    Dark ruby color; sous bois, light smoke, oak nose; very tight, tart roasted berry, black berry, ripe fruit, charcoal palate with structure and firm tannins; meeds 8 years; medium-plus finish (89 pts.)
  • 2009 Bouchard Père et Fils Beaune 1er Cru Grèves Vigne de L’Enfant Jesus – France, Burgundy, Côte de Beaune, Beaune 1er Cru
    Dark ruby color; sous bois, oak, sweet green chilie nose; tight, silky textured, tart cherry, sous bois, mineral, green herb palate; medium-plus finish 89+ points (not as appealing as this bottling usually is, probably due to the high whole cluster inclusion in ’09) (89 pts.)

Grand Cru

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  • 2009 Bouchard Père et Fils Corton-Le Corton – France, Burgundy, Côte de Beaune, Corton Grand Cru
    Medium dark ruby color; appealing, tart cherry, plum, green herbs nose; tight, silky textured, tart cherry, raspberry, spice palate with integrating oak and sweet tannins; needs 4-5 years; long finish (92 pts.)

2008 BOUCHARDS – Vin Vino Wine, Palo Alto, California (10/5/2010-10/7/2010)

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’08 Bouchard Whites

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  • 2008 Bouchard Père et Fils Meursault Les Clous – France, Burgundy, Côte de Beaune, Meursault (10/5/2010)
    Light yellow color; nice lemon, vanilla nose; tight, light citrus palate with a sense of salt; medium finish (89 pts.)
  • 2008 Bouchard Père et Fils Beaune 1er Cru Clos St. Landry – France, Burgundy, Côte de Beaune, Beaune 1er Cru (10/5/2010)
    Light yellow color; vanilla, lemon nose; tasty, bright lemon, citrus, mineral palate, broad, rich but balanced; medium-plus finish (needs 3-4 years) (91 pts.)
  • 2008 Bouchard Père et Fils Meursault 1er Cru Les Genevrières – France, Burgundy, Côte de Beaune, Meursault 1er Cru (10/5/2010)
    Light yellow color; nice lemon, citrus, floral, lemon Kool-Aid powder nose; tasty, rich, poised, tangy, ripe lemon, citrus, mineral palate; medium-plus finish (93 pts.)
  • 2008 Bouchard Père et Fils Meursault 1er Cru Les Perrières – France, Burgundy, Côte de Beaune, Meursault 1er Cru (10/5/2010)
    Light yellow color; minerally, tart citrus nose; tight, floral, tart lemon, citrus, mineral palate; medium-plus finish 92+ pts. (needs 3+ years) (92 pts.)
  • 2008 Bouchard Père et Fils Corton-Charlemagne – France, Burgundy, Côte de Beaune, Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru (10/5/2010)
    Light yellow color; solid tart lemon, almond, vanilla, acacia nose; tight, concentrated, tart lemon, vanilla, acacia palate with depth; medium-plus finish (needs 5-plus years) (93 pts.)

’08 Bouchard Reds

  • 2008 Bouchard Père et Fils Beaune 1er Cru Clos de la Mousse – France, Burgundy, Côte de Beaune, Beaune 1er Cru (10/7/2010)
    Medium cherry red color with pale meniscus; sous bois, green nose; tight, tart cherry, roses, mineral palate with firm tannins; medium finish (89 pts.)
  • 2008 Bouchard Père et Fils Volnay 1er Cru Caillerets Ancienne Cuvée Carnot – France, Burgundy, Côte de Beaune, Volnay 1er Cru (10/7/2010)
    Medium cherry red color; sous bois, tart cherry nose with a touch of brett; surprisingly concentrated on palate, ripe cherry, red fruit, cinnamon, sous bois palate with grip; medium-plus finish (88 pts.)
  • 2008 Bouchard Père et Fils Beaune 1er Cru Grèves Vigne de L’Enfant Jesus – France, Burgundy, Côte de Beaune, Beaune 1er Cru (10/7/2010)
    Medium dark cherry red color; sous bois, green, menthol nose; tight, tart raspberry, sous bois, mineral, tart red fruit palate with sweet tannins; medium-plus finish (not as tasty and well knit as I’m used to with this Bouchard bottling) (89 pts.)
  • 2008 Bouchard Père et Fils Corton-Le Corton – France, Burgundy, Côte de Beaune, Corton Grand Cru (10/7/2010)
    Medium dark cherry red color; Nag Champa incense, sandalwood, dried cherry, ripe cherry nose; tight, ripe cherry, tart cherry, mineral palate with depth; medium-plus finish (91 pts.)
  • 2008 Bouchard Père et Fils Chambertin-Clos de Bèze – France, Burgundy, Côte de Nuits, Chambertin-Clos de Bèze Grand Cru (10/7/2010)
    Medium dark cherry red color; hibiscus, tart red fruit, rosehips, sous bois nose; tight, complex, sous bois, hibiscus, tart red fruit, mineral, green, menthol palate; medium-plus finish 88+ pts. (this is showing much more green and sous bois than usual, and not at all as well as other critic ratings would have led me to expect) (88 pts.)
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7 Responses to J’Accuse: Criminal Stem Inclusion Levels in 2009 Bouchard Red Burgundies

  1. Mike M says:

    Notes complaining that it will take Two or three years for stem tannins to integrate, or that a newly released Bouchard Corton clos de Corton needs 4-5 suggest a fundamental misunderstanding of good Burgundy. In good vintages such as 2008 and 2009, I wouldn’t even begin to sample my 1st crus until they are five years old, and likely wouldn’t start seriously drinking them until 10 years out. The Bouchard Corton clos de Corton needs ten years minimum and really won’t hit it’s stride, like most Cortons for 20 or more years. I haven’t done more than just tried one bottle of my several cases of various 1999 Cortons.

    • Richard Jennings says:

      Mike,
      I appreciate your comment. I don’t know how long you’ve been following my blog, or my CellarTracker notes, but I assure you I am well aware that it takes Cortons many years to fully come around, and I wouldn’t recommend to “start seriously drinking them” either until 10 years out. I have written 3,400 notes on Burgundies on CT to date, and 89 of those notes describe red Grand Cru Cortons at various stages of development. What I apparently left out of my blog that would have clarified my point for you is that even though a Burgundy may be big, structured, tannic and the like, on release, and usually for up to a year or so afterwards, there is typically enough predominant fruit and what some critics (e.g., Allen Meadows) have referred to as “baby fat” that one can get a good sense of what the ultimate wine will be like, and certainly assess its charm. Big, structured vintages like 1996, 2002, 2005, and even less structured vintages (e.g., ’99) then tend to go into a dumb phase for several years, where they are very hard to assess, and certainly hard to fully enjoy because they are so tight.

      I am quite used to tasting newly released Burgundies, and have already tasted quite a number of 2009s, so I was comparing these Bouchards to other ’09s. I didn’t think I needed to explain that, but I appreciate the nudge you’ve given me to do so. It is in comparison to other ’09s, and new release Bouchards prior to ’08 that I am making my comments about the obscuring of the fruit with green flavors, and the bigger than usual tannins.

      –Richard

  2. Jake H says:

    Great post! I really liked the comprehensive list of “stemmers” vs. “destemmers”. Personally I have not taken an official stand-on-stems but I was surprised by the number of my preferred producers that were in the “destemmers” category. The pure fruit is certainly a big plus for me, but I think I do like some stemmers such as Rhys. Now perhaps I will start thinking about those tradeoffs. It would be fun to do a stem vs. non-stem tasting sometime….

    • Richard Jennings says:

      Jake,
      I’m glad you found the post interesting. Knowing that you and I usually agree on wines in blindtastings, I’m not surprised a lot of your preferred producers are in the “destemmer” list. I think a blind stem vs. destemmed Pinot tasting is a great idea!
      Thank you,
      Richard

  3. Casey Benjamin says:

    Great post, this line made me laugh aloud: “In other words, WTF Bouchard?”
    Interesting you bring up Rhys who I enjoy but produces some crazy-green wines that I would not dream to open for at least 3+ yrs after release. I’m in “hold and hope” mode with a case of their basic Alesia Sonoma Coast which will sit quietly for a few more years.
    Like Jake, most of the producers I enjoy were on the de-stemmer list which doesn’t surprise me, I drink young wines.

  4. William Emile Bond, III says:

    The list of de-stemmers and non de-stemmers is arguably not conclusive or 100% accurate because Producers, including DRC who did de-stem a significant portion of the fruit in La Tache 2006 states David Schildkneckt in a recent Jancis Robinson Purple pages discussion, often only use partial whole cluster. Case in point, Domaine Potel(now Domaine de Bellene) Bourgogne Rouge 2007, which is BTG at Range and Benu in SF, BTW, is 50% whole cluster and 50% de-stemmed in order to “add complexity” to quote Nicholas Potel. Furthermore, I recently listened to Bernard Hervet, Managing Director for Domaine Faiveley(serendipitously, former Managing Director for Bouchard Pere et Fils!)state that whole cluster protocol at Domaine Faiveley is based on village of origin due to virus historically present in specific communes(I will follow up with Mr. Hervet to clarify this), in addition to other factors such as ripeness of stems. Domaine Faiveley may use some whole cluster fermentation in Nuits St George, but will not do so in Gevrey Chambertin as an example.

    • Richard Jennings says:

      Web,
      Thank you for this great additional information on what’s actually happening in Burgundy. I’ve found these kinds of details very hard to get at and verify, which is why I appreciate not only your great comment, but the dozens of comments my reposting of this blog piece generated over on WineBerserkers in the last several days. Here’s the link to that thread: http://www.wineberserkers.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=51805&start=150

      I did come under some withering attack over there for the strong statements in my piece, and my “lack of understanding” of the nuances of Burgundy, but I’m thrilled that my vehemently stated opinions generated an active discussion, unlike the last time I took on this subject a year ago. Some very knowledgeable Burg heads, like yourself, weighed in, as well as very thoughtful winemakers and producers, like Joe Davis, Kevin Harvey and Ray Walker. As a result, I have a host of additional data and avenues for research that will help make my next foray into this subject, which thoroughly fascinates me, much more complete and nuanced (I hope). I also did a poll on people’s preferences regarding stem inclusion and Burgundy over there, which, together with the comments on the thread above, helped me understand that there are a lot more people who are aware of the practice of stem inclusion in Burgundy and Pinot Noir that actually prefer their juice with a lot of those green and stemmy flavors that I personally don’t care for. At any rate, I commend the thread on WB to anyone who wants to learn more about this subject, which, IMO, has not been as widely discussed and debated publicly (or referenced as much by critics) as I think it deserves.

      warmest regards,
      Richard

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