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With dried stems, an idea takes root

Wine has been made since biblical times. Oak barrels, glass bottles, corks and screw caps have defined modern innovation. New technologies can reinvent wine, the way temperature control allowed vintners to produce the crisp white wines we enjoy and demand today. But Rollin Soles thinks he’s onto something no one else is doing.

Soles is a familiar name to fans of Oregon wine. He co-founded Argyle winery in 1987 with Australian wine legend Brian Croser, specializing first in sparkling wine, later adding pinot noir, chardonnay and other varieties. He left Argyle in 2013 to focus on Roco, the label he created in 2003 with his wife, Corby. Now he’s excited about a new variation he has created on whole-cluster fermentation of pinot noir.

Bear with me while I indulge in a little wine wonkiness: Whole-cluster fermentation means the grape clusters are poured into the fermenting bins with their stems, or stalks. The stalks add tannin and structure to the wine, and some pinot noir producers favor this technique because pinot noir is a less-tannic grape than others, such as cabernet sauvignon. It’s actually an old winemaking method, as de-stemming machines are a relatively recent invention that helped winemakers emphasize fruit flavors in the wine.

Soles favors the modern method of de-stemming pinot noir, chilling the grapes and letting them “cold soak” – meaning the grapes slowly decompose at cold temperatures for a week or more until fermentation begins. This technique heightens fruit flavors in the wine and extracts color from the skins.

“I’ve always wanted to make wine that tastes of the vineyard, of fresh fruit,” Soles told me during a recent interview via Skype. “With whole-cluster, the wines too often tasted green and vegetal. I could only taste stalks.”

Then one year, Soles traveled through the U.S. Midwest on a marketing tour with Dario Boscaini, a noted producer of Amarone, the powerful red wine from northeast Italy made from air-dried grapes. As he listened to Boscaini describe how he made wines from the dried grapes, Soles realized the stalks were left on the clusters, and they were drying, too.

“Everyone focuses on the desiccated grapes and their concentrated flavors, but no one mentions the stalks,” he said. Because they were drying, too, they may have been losing some of that green, unripe character, he figured.

So in 2011, Soles experimented. Instead of composting the stems he removed from his pinot noir grapes, he saved them and dried them during the seven-to-10-day period the grapes were cold-soaking. Once fermentation began, he added the stems back to the juice.

“I expected to get a lot more tannin in the wine while preserving the fruit,” he said. “And the tannin was measurably higher, about 20 percent. But when I tasted the wine, I noticed a voluptuous texture.”

Soles bottled the wine as the Stalker. Its character is similar to that of the Roco Willamette Valley pinot noir, with black cherry fruit and subtle earthy tannins. Pinot fans will recognize both as Oregon wines. The Stalker is more voluptuous, with a fuller mouth feel and a texture that improves as the wine breathes over a day or two after opening.

Soles made only 100 cases that first vintage and just 625 cases in the current release, 2013. Despite his enthusiasm for the results, he doesn’t plan to expand production beyond that level in future vintages.

“It’s a lot of hard work pushing those stems down into the grapes as they’re fermenting,” he said wryly. But the effort is worth it.

“It’s exciting for me to come up with a completely unique way to ferment red wine,” Soles said. “I never thought I’d come up with something that I don’t believe anyone else has ever done.”

McIntyre blogs at On Twitter: @dmwine.

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