Pinot Noir Winemaking Techniques from Burgundy

We have all heard the expression that great wine is made in the vineyard. And while we home winemakers generally accept this as truth, nowhere has this been more obvious to me than in the Burgundy region of France.

Many fans of Pinot Noir, including myself, believe that the very best Pinot Noirs come from Burgundy, where they have been growing grapes and making wine for at least 1,000 years. Certainly, they are often among the most expensive. Anyone who loves Burgundy tends to rave about the wines, and yet this complex region remains a mystery to many due to its incredible number of tiny producers and often difficult to understand micro-regions, called climats. I’m not going to go into a long discussion of this practice as there are a ton of references, but I’ll give a quick summary. In Burgundy, there is a history and “reputation” of each little parcel of vineyard.

This area has been making wine for centuries and all the spots that make really great grapes for wine are well known. Depending on how good the wine has been from this parcel in the past, it has been classified as either “really awesome” (Grand Cru), pretty darned good (“Premier Cru”), “good” (village) or “average” (region — which in this case would be Bourgogne).

During my trip to Burgundy as part of a film crew working on a television series about wine, I had the chance to do what the public really can’t do: visit the cellars and vineyards of some of the most renowned domaines in Burgundy, taste the 2010 and 2011 from the barrel and talk to the winemakers themselves about how they make these delicate, amazingly perfumed wines that drink like silk. Once you have had a good Burg, you are going to have a hard time going back to “regular” Pinot Noir!

Please do not judge real Burgundy by the cheap “Bourgogne rouge” put out by some of the négociants (winemakers without vineyards). (I’m not naming names, but you know whom I’m talking about!) Good Burg is like nothing on Earth. It’s simply astonishing.

In Burgundy, the red wine grape is predominantly Pinot Noir (and in fact with only a few small exceptions, this is the law, as this area has been cultivated for centuries with this grape and it’s the grape that does best in this cool climate).

How do they achieve their amazing level of refinement? Well, much to my surprise, most of the “winemaking” in Burgundy really does happen in the vineyard. As someone who is a student of the New World winemaking school, in which we manipulate virtually every part of the process, I was surprised by how little manipulation goes on in the winemaking itself in Burgundy. The biggest goal for the vigneron (winemaker) in Burgundy is to manage the vines well, so Mother Nature can ripen the grapes. There is no irrigation, and the soil, sun, rain and terroir determine what happens.

Once the grapes are determined to be ready for harvest, they are delivered to the cuverie (the name of the area in the winemaking facility for making the wine) and sorted on a table or small conveyor belt by a team of people usually including the winemaker. The idea is to get rid of the moldy, shriveled or unripe grapes. At least one domaine I visited makes a nice rosé from the not-quite-ripe grapes that get sorted out, but not all domaines go that route.

Next, the grapes go through a crusher/destemmer as you would expect, except that in Burgundy they do a lot of whole-cluster pressing. This is not carbonic maceration — the grapes are crushed, but they are often not destemmed. Some winemakers fully de-stem, and others don’t de-stem at all. Most of the winemakers I spoke with used some percentage of whole clusters in most cuvées (tanks). When asked how they decide how much to de-stem, they always threw up their hands and said “it depends” or “experience.” They were not trying to be secretive. The fact is that they can’t really describe it easily. It’s a feeling to them more than a science. Some vignerons chew on the stems to see how ripe or tannic they are. One winemaker told me that in general, if the fruit is very ripe with high sugar and lower acid, he includes more stems to give more tannin. But when the fruit is not as ripe, the stems would give too much tannin and bitterness, so he would fully de-stem. One vigneron with a rather large vineyard harvests in blocks, making eight separate cuvées from the eight blocks of the vineyard said he decides on a block-by-block basis how many stems to leave in. In 2011, one block was fully de-stemmed and another was completely whole cluster. The other six blocks were varied between the two.

Once destemmed/crushed, the must goes into an open-topped fermentation vat. These vats are nearly always made of oak in Burgundy, although a few cement vats are around. A potential problem with cement is that the materials in the concrete can react with acids in the must and change the pH unless the material is treated properly. In Burgundy, only really ancient concrete vats are still in use as they have a crust of precipitates covering the concrete to protect the wine. Nobody seems to build new ones anymore. Stainless fermenter tanks seem to be used only in the largest facilities, predominantly the négociants and large cuveries like that of the Hospices de Beaune.

Fermentation uses natural wild yeasts only. Nobody, and I mean nobody, in Burgundy uses commercially-prepared yeasts. The entire notion is laughable!

In years where the fruit is not ripe, chaptalization is employed. In Burgundy, by law, you cannot add more than 2% alcohol-producing equivalent of sugar (~4 °Brix). Ripeness in Burgundy is different than in other parts of the world. Rarely is a red Burg more than 13.5% alcohol by volume (ABV), and perfectly ripe fruit can make 12.5% ABV wine. This is not a region for “hot” wine. So the °Brix has to be below about 12% potential alcohol before anyone is going to consider adding sugar.

The must does get a small dose of sulfite at the crush to kill off any bacteria. This apparently doesn’t inhibit the native yeasts on the grapes.

After somewhere between 2 and 7 days, fermentation starts on its own. One of the most interesting facts I learned is that certain climats (parcels) often show the same fermentation “speed” year after year. For example, one block of vines always produces fruit that goes into fermentation and completes fermentation faster than the one next door, year after year. Why? It’s anyone’s guess.

As for temperature control, you would be surprised how little there is. Most winemakers told me that they shoot for bringing the ferment up to at least 86 °F (30 °C) with 90 °F (32 °C) being better, and then allowing it to naturally cool back down as the ferment loses vigor. The high temperature is for color and tannin extraction from the thin-skinned Pinot Noir grape. Most winemakers only intervene if the temperature rises above 95 °F (35 °C).

Punching is done 2–4 times a day, and most winemakers prefer a twice-a-day schedule (once in the morning, once in the evening). Too much punching over-extracts tannins and more importantly diminishes fragrances. A few winemakers admitted to using enzymes to help with extraction to minimize punching. This seems to be one of only two ingredients ever added to the wine — the other being sulfite of course. But most winemakers don’t even use the enzymes.
For wines that need to be cooled down or have the ferment extended for better extraction, some winemakers use a délestage. What’s interesting is that we often consider this a means of removing seeds. In Burgundy, this does not seem to be the case in general. In fact the délestage in Burgundy (or at least something similar in mechanics to it) is a technique where wine is taken out of the must into another vat or tank, allowed to cool down a little, and then pumped back into the fermenter (on top of the cap as a gentle punch down). This gently cools the ferment and slows it down. Some of the fermenters have cooling coils in them, but most open top fermenters for the reds do not. This type of délestage is a method of cooling and slowing the ferment to extend skin contact.

No yeast nutrients ever seem to be used by anyone. The winemakers claim that at their lower alcohol levels, they are not stressing the yeast, and the grapes naturally have enough of the right nutrients to ferment to dryness on their own without issue. But hydrogen sulfide (H2S) and reduction odors are not unknown, so clearly in some cases, this is not true. (And, there are ways other than fermenting under highly alcoholic conditions to stress wine yeasts and produce H2S.) Several winemakers told me that because they practice more and more biodynamic and organic methods, limiting pesticides, sulfur, copper and other toxic chemicals, the issue of reduction has become less and less common.

The must is ready for pressing at around 1 °Brix, but really it’s a call on the part of the winemaker based on many factors — not the least of which being what else is going on in the cuverie with other cuvées.

The must goes into a press (every facility I visited was using ultra-modern bladder presses) and the resulting wine goes into stainless settling tanks. Free-run and press run are not usually separated.

After settling for 24 hours, the wine is placed into French oak barrels (the majority seemed to be made by Francois Frere in Burgundy) to finish fermentation. New oak is minimized. Most producers try to keep the new oak under 30% and quality older barrels are prized by their owners. Of course barrels need occasional replacement and a little oak is good, so there is always some new oak. One producer told me “I am making wine, not oak juice.” Most producers show disdain for overly-oaked wines, but admitted that other regions can get benefit from it. (There was always a Bordeaux joke in there). They felt that too much oak overpowers Pinot Noir and its delicate flavors and aromas.

The barrels are typically 225 L (59 gal.) in size with ½ and ¼ barrels used for odd quantities that won’t fill an entire barrel. I never once saw a carboy in a cellar for a very small volume of wine, although I did see a glass demijohn in one cellar.

The wine completes fermentation in barrels in the cave (cellar) at around 60° F (16 °C), and malolactic fermentation (MLF) starts on its own. In the case of older, used barrels, the bacteria is hiding in the wood grain from the last batch, so MLF starts quickly. Newer barrels take “a little longer.” Incredulous, I asked if they somehow inoculate the new barrels with the “right” malolactic bacteria (MLB) that won’t make volatile acidity (VA). They said no and admitted that sometimes VA gets higher than expected, and also said that Burgundy is known for wines with a little higher VA than in other wines. It’s part of their taste. But for the most part, it’s below the threshold of detection (I didn’t detect it in any of the wines I tasted, and that was over 100 wines in a week).

Knowing a little about “good” and “bad” MLB, I suspect that since the pH in Burgundy wines is usually on the low side, the “bad” MLB rarely has the optimal conditions to grow (i.e. pH>3.5).
For a long time, the tradition was that MLF would start in the spring when the cellar warmed up. Alcoholic fermentation would complete in the barrel in the fall, but the cellar would soon cool with the coming of winter and the wine would sit on its fine lees all winter until MLF in the spring. More and more winemakers however are now using a very small space heater to keep the cellar around 60 °F (16 °C) until MLF completes, so they can sulfite. I didn’t encounter a single domaine that was not practicing this, and many of the 2011 Burgs were completely finished with MLF when I tasted them in mid-November. The lees are not stirred to promote MLF unless they have a barrel that is going too slowly or seems stuck, which is rare. Malo nutrients? No way!

Although the winemakers have a good handle by experience on the taste of completed MLF (and often listen to the “crackling” of the MLF with a tube held to the bunghole of a barrel to monitor progress) they use the services of a lab to check for completion of MLF using paper chromagraphy. I only encountered one domaine (with an American assistant winemaker!) that did their own chromagraphy. (The American did it). “We leave it to the lab to tell us for sure when it’s done,” one winemaker told me. I asked how many parts per million were considered “done” and he said, “Zero!” They want all the malic acid gone.

The barrels are not racked off the fine lees until the following spring. Then they go a year in the second barrel. Most domaines said they only rack once between barrels. The second racking is when the wine gets blended from barrels into a stainless tank for bottling. This happens at about 18–22 months after harvest. Since most of the vineyards are quite small, there are usually only a few barrels from each climat. Those all go into a single blend and get bottled. But in the larger climats where the harvest is broken into blocks and fermented separately, the final blend may not include all of the barrels of all the blocks. If for example one area of the vineyard was not as ripe as the rest, and the winemaker decides not to blend all of it into the wine, there is some extra wine left over. If this wine is from a Grand Cru or Premier Cru vineyard, of course, this is a valuable wine. But the leftover wine will be declassified to a lesser “village” appellation, bottled and sold.

Red Burgundy is almost never filtered, especially at the Premier Cru or Grand Cru level. It has plenty of time to clarify itself in barrel through natural settling. Egg white fining is, however, practiced at some wineries. There is, of course, a sulfite addition at bottling.

Many producers will hold back a percentage of the bottles in their cellar for their own collection or to release at a later date. These are not labeled, as the mold in the cellar will make the label look bad. If they are sold in the future, they go through a machine that cleans the bottles before they apply the capsule and labels. When the cuverie is not being used for the ferment, often this generous space will be repurposed for the storage of pallets of boxed bottles for shipment, and for shipping and receiving operations. Many producers will stack up their huge wooden fermenting vats to make more floor space for other operations. After all, the cuverie is only used for about three weeks each season. See below for ideas on how to use Burgundian-style winemaking at home in North America.

Making “Burgundy” at Home

Obviously, North American winemakers can’t make full-on Burgundy, because you can’t source grapes from that region. (And even if you could, they would have to be shipped across an ocean. Even if considerable energy were spent on keeping the grapes in good shape, they would not be in the same condition when they reached your garage as when they arrive at a cuverie in Burgundy.) However, you can make a wine that mimics red wine from Burgundy by stressing finesse and balance over big fruit, high alcohol and lots of oak. The place to start would be selecting your grapes.

If you’d like to make a wine inspired by the reds from Burgundy, finding Pinot Noir grown in the cooler parts of its cultivation range would be a good start. See if you can get grapes that are harvested closer to the numbers in Burgundy (around 22­–23 °Brix) than those in the warmer climes of California, (where harvest numbers may be 24 °Brix or higher). If your sugar content is slightly higher than optimal Burgundy numbers, you can either just accept the situation or dilute the must down to your desired °Brix value with acidulated water.

As mentioned in the main article, you have options at the crusher and deciding on how much destemming to do is up to you.

There is one aspect of Burgundian winemaking you should not follow — fermenting with wild yeast. The vineyards in Burgundy have been there for centuries and have a microflora that permits them to skip adding cultured yeast. (Their barrels are likewise impregnated with yeast from previous successful fermentations.) Odds are your grapes and garage do not have the microflora of a vineyard and cuverie in Burgundy, so do the smart thing and inoculate with prepared yeast.

There are other times you may want to use New World techniques when trying to make a successful Burgundy-style wine outside of Burgundy. In fact, knowing when to emulate French winemakers and when to use more interventionist techniques will ultimately determine the quality of the wine.

Winemakers in Burgundy take a hands off approach compared to many winemakers in other parts of the world. However, they also have the luxury of (literally) centuries of trial and error — they know how grapes from a given vineyard block (climat) have performed for many years and their viticultural practices and winemaking habits have evolved together. North American winemakers don’t have that particular experience, but we do know — based on the science of enology — when intervention in the winery is likely to be worthwhile and when to leave things alone.

If you are lucky enough to source grapes with harvest numbers similar to those in Burgundy, and the grapes are of high quality, a hands off approach may well pay dividends. If you’ve got great fruit, your primary goal is not to screw it up. On the other hand, if you’ve got quality grapes, but the numbers are a little off, a small adjustment of your must prior to fermentation can set you on the path to a great wine. Small adjustments of sugar and acid — or adding appropriate amounts of yeast nutrients, if needed — will give you a must capable of being fermented into a great wine. What constitutes a small adjustment is, of course, open to debate; but in general, if you are changing any of your harvest numbers — through dilution or addition — by less than 10%, your wine likely not suffer. If you would need adjustments greater than this to make your style of wine, you should consider making a style of wine more appropriate to the grapes.

If you start with a balanced must, whose numbers are in line with making a finessed wine, your goal during fermentation and beyond is simply to seek the best expression of the grapes. Don’t overdo it on the punch downs and keep your percentage of new oak low. (Use a small amount of French oak cubes, spirals or staves, and separate them from the wine before they impart too much flavor.) Do inoculate with malolactic bacteria (MLB), unless you are sure that your circumstances will ensure that malolactic fermentation (MLF) will start on its own.