The Stalk has Visited
The Yarra Valley is arguably Australia’s most creative wine region at present, a cauldron of inventiveness and much progress is being made despite the setbacks of heat-waves, bushfire smoke, droughts and frosts and this year’s deluge. Driven by such charismatic personalities as Steve Webber (of De Bortoli), the region is pushing the boundaries of the envelope with chardonnay, pinot noir and other varieties. One of the new catch-cries is stalks. Stalks in pinot noir and shiraz, principally. Other cool-climate winemakers have been experimenting with stalks too, such as Alex McKay (of Collector Wines) and others in the Canberra region, but in the Yarra, the ‘stalk dorks’ seem to be taking over. The chief proponents are Dave Bicknell of Oakridge, Bill Downie (William Downie), Luke Lambert, Gary Mills (Jamsheed), Rory Lane (The Story) and Webber. The pioneer of big-time stalk usage was Gary Farr of By Farr and previously of Bannockburn. He and his son Nick (Farr Rising) still probe the limits with stalks and are making what I think are wonderful pinot noirs this way. Back at Bannockburn, Michael Glover continues the stalk mania.
Why use stalks at all? I mean, have you ever chewed on a grape-stalk, and enjoyed the experience? Just the aroma is off-putting enough. In red wine, a high stalk content in the ferment results in a wine that smells peppery, dusty and vegetal, often green – indeed, this kind of wine can be difficult to tell apart from a wine made from unripe grapes. At a low level, say 25 per cent, they contribute extra complexity in aroma and flavour without dominating. As well, high-stalk inclusion wines tend to quickly change with even a year or two’s age, morphing from a rather herbal wine to a more foresty, undergrowth or sweet-tobacco scent that can be very appealing. The technique has its origins in traditional French wines of Burgundy and the Rhone Valley, where it was the norm until mechanical de-stemming machines were built. It is still used by quite a few winemakers, and is just as controversial over there. Read WineBeserkers.com for a detailed argument by a stalk-hater!
“Why do so many makers of pinot noir these days think they’ll make a better wine out of the delicate and flavourful grape by including a lot of stems in the mix? What possesses people to take a beautiful ingredient and obscure its deliciousness with extraneous flavors taken from much lesser material?” the writer asks.
Well, in the winemakers’ defence, I’d reply that many of the most complex, most fascinating and charming Australian pinots I have drunk over the years have included a well-judged, read subtle, quantity of stalks in the ferment.
When specialist Burgundy scribe Allen Meadows asked the famous Burgundy winemaker Henri Jayer (a stalk man) if he’d ever enjoyed chewing on a grape stalk, Jayer replied no, but had Meadows ever enjoyed chewing on a piece of oak barrel? It doesn’t mean it can’t add something interesting to the wine, and anyway, neither stalks nor oak-wood become a part of the wine, they simply have contact with it for a time.
In a sense, stalks are like oak: too much is bad, and neither should dominate, but if sensitively used, both can add something. But they can also fool the taster. A wine that can be off-putting to taste in a wine show or other blind tasting can be surprisingly enjoyable as a drink. Critical tasting is different to drinking in the sense that tasting puts a disproportionate emphasis on aroma, whereas the palate taste is what really counts when you drink a wine. Punt Road’s 2010 Chemin Syrah ($40 tasting) is very peppery and dusty to sniff, thanks to 100 percent stalks, but also quite aromatic and attractive. Oakridge’s 2009 Oakridge Vineyard 864 Syrah ($60 tasting) has a fairly stem-influenced aroma too, but tastes utterly delicious.
On the other hand, the 2010 Chemin Pinot Noir (tastings) is light and lacks the depth, fruit intensity and character that I’d hoped for. It has a very pale colour, which will put some people off to begin with.
Many winemakers report that pale coloured pinot doesn’t sell well, despite reassurance that colour in pinot is not very important, the way it is in cabernet or shiraz. “Pinot noir lovers don’t judge pinot by its colour,” says Goodman. She has been the winemaker at Punt Road for 10 years, making fairly safe, not-too-challenging wines to a price, and relishes the chance to spread her wings and bottle some more adventurous wines. So it’s 100 per cent stalks – no half measures!
“I don’t think they’re so extreme that they won’t appeal to the masses,” he says. “They’re medium bodied, delicate and fine.”
Why 100 percent stalks? “It’s about minimal intervention, in order to represent the site best,” she says. If part of expressing the terroir is letting the vineyard’s native yeasts and bacteria do the job, she’s done that. “We’ve let the microflora do the work, where as in most of our wines we use sulfur to control what grows in them.”
Doesn’t stalk character obscure the terroir, though, just as too much oak would? Goodman thinks it’s more important to leave in as much of what the vineyard naturally produces, and stems are part of that.
“I don’t use unripe stalks. I chew them to make sure they’re ripe. We want some lignification if possible. But it’s not so much the stalks that make the wines different: it’s more the fruit. We select the fruit based on health and ripeness of the grapes.” Both wines are from the 53-hectare Napoleone Vineyard next-door to the winery, which supplies most of Punt Road’s grapes. Both wines are off the best old vines, around 20 years old.
The Farr family, stalk dorks supreme, have their own reasoning. Their pinots range from 100 percent stalks with the flagship Tout Pres to 40 percent with Farr Rising. The shiraz has been cut back to 25 percent. Says winemaker Nick Farr: “The main purpose is to keep the berries as whole as possible for as long as possible, to release their sugar slowly into the fermentation. This gives more gamey, earthy, foresty characters, and creates structure, length and savouriness. The wines are always tighter, less fruit-forward, and never as open as 100 percent destemmed wines.” He agrees that sometimes they can taste too vegetal when young but even a year or two in the bottle transforms this into more attractive complexities. A little patience is needed, and the classic example is the ’09 Tout Pres by Farr Pinot Noir ($95-$105 tasting). Its stemminess is a little confronting right now, even for me, and I’m a bit of stalk dork too.
First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 6 September 2011.