Meet John Grochau … or “Why Whole Cluster Matters”

John GrochauSince founding Grochau Cellars in 2002, former bicycle racer and Portland waiter John Grochau has operated by one simple mantra: “Don’t screw it up.” He developed his interest in Willamette Valley wines working at one of Portland’s best wine restaurants, Higgins. He then went on to work at Erath and serve four years as an assistant winemaker at Doug Tunnel’s Brick House Wines in Ribbon Ridge.

John works with growers up and down the Willamette Valley, selecting those who farm sustainably and value balanced ripeness over either quantity or pure power. In the winery, he tries to do as little as possible. Hand harvested grapes are sorted in the vineyard and at the winery to remove any imperfect fruit. Based on the character of the vineyard and vintage, he destems part of the harvest and leaves some of the grapes whole on their stems – up to 50% for some blocks and vintages.

Once the grapes are in the vat, he waits to let the yeast living in the winery or that traveled from the vineyards with the grapes to start a natural fermentation. Gentle pump-overs and punchdowns help extract color, structure, and flavor before aging in mainly used oak rounds off the edges without adding overt wood flavors.

John sums up his approach nicely: “It’s simple really: Don’t screw it up. Resist the urge to do too much. Modern winemakers have such an array of options available to them it’s staggering. Micro-oxygenation. Wine concentrators. Enzyme addition. Not to mention the temptation so many indulge to beat an otherwise fine wine over the head with a battery of new oak. We eschew all this. Minimal handling, subtle coaxing, oak as a seasoning not as main dish: These are the hallmarks of our wines. Honest, accurate, true to their roots and to the wonderful subtleties of vintage variation.”

Whole Cluster Magic

Until about 50 years ago, all red wine was made pretty much the same way. Pick the grape bunches, through them into a vat, stomp around on them a bit to break the skins and free up the juice, and then wait for yeast from the vineyards or living in the winery to get to work. The increasing alcohol, fermentation heat, and a little extra stomping around extracted color and tannin from the grape skins and seeds. If some extra hard tannin or green flavors were also pulled out of the stems – well, that’s just one reason you needed to wait a few years before the wine was ready to drink!

Today, as winemakers attempt to make wine with more fruit flavors and earlier accessibility, most red winemaking starts with putting grape bunches in a device called a destemmer, one that knocks the berries off their stems and dumps them whole or, more often, crushed into the fermentation vat. Destemming lets winemakers avoid the sometimes-bitter flavors and tannins from under-ripe stems and helps the fermenting wine retain color and fresh fruit flavors. If a little texture and body and complexity was lost, no matter: the critics (especially Robert Parker) love fruit and hate greenness so much that the winery was sure to come out ahead.

Over the past 20 years or so, more and more winemakers – especially those working with Syrah, Grenache, and Pinot Noir – have been carefully heading back to the future to try to regain the benefits of including stems in fermentation without suffering the downsides. And you’ll taste how whole cluster use can benefit Pinot Noir, especially, in all three of John Grochau’s featured 2012 wines.

Vineyard by Vineyard, Vintage by Vintage

John decides how much fruit to destem vs. leave whole-cluster on a vineyard-by-vineyard, block-by-block, and vintage-by-vintage basis. The perfect 2012 growing season and harvest meant that he had no concern about adequate fruit in his wines – the ripe berries were bursting with it! In fact, his challenge was to avoid making wines that were “only” about fruit and that lacked the aromatic and textural complexity great Pinot Noir really should have.

So he left between 30% and 50% of his grape bunches intact and fermented them along with the destemmed berries. The addition of stems keeps the fermenting vats’ caps loose and open, allowing more oxygen in and lengthening the fermentation. While some color is lost, the wine gains extra does of spice, herb, and floral complexity and a bit more lengthy tannins on the finish.

But the biggest difference I see in whole cluster fermented Pinot Noir is in mid-palate texture. Taste any of these wines, and you’ll immediately notice how rich and silky they feel in your mouth. It’s a different kind of richness than you get from high alcohol or extract – it’s more akin to glycerol or the kind of gelatin-based slickness you get in a really great meat stock. It seems to keep the flavors on your palate longer and buffers the fine-grained, firm, tannins emerging on the finish – stretching everything out to give more length and delight.

Just like in the old days, John’s use of whole clusters means that these wines will give even more delight as they age gracefully over the next decade or so. But they are far too smooth, silky, and delicious to wait that long – best have some to drink now and others to follow for years!

We’ve enjoyed John Grochau’s wines for years, especially his entry-level “Commuter Cuvee,” surely one of the best value Pinot Noirs coming out of Oregon year after year. But we’ve leaned in harder with his 2012 releases for two simple reasons: the wines are outstanding and they are outstanding value.

We strongly recommend you sample all three of these featured Pinots – one from the Dundee Hills in Willamette Valley’s northern region, one from the fine Zenith Vineyard in the southerly Eola-Amity AVA, and one a blend of fruit from across the valley. As Matt Kramer said of John’s wines a few years ago, “A couple of sips will tell you he’s a purist winemaker interested in finesse, nuance and what can admiringly be called a certain tenderness.” Lovely stuff you really should try!

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