how ripe is ripe enough?

Monday, October 11, 2010

The 2010 vintage is providing some unusual challenges to winemakers and grape growers up and down the coast. In the Willamette valley the harvest has barely begun. In Washington, merlot and syrah is coming in from Red Mountain and a few other warmer sites. Walla Walla vineyards (especially down in the flat) have had more than their fair share of rain – a real gullywasher just yesterday.

But winemakers here in Washington – so far at least – seem very happy. They report brix at 23-ish, pH around 3.3, acids still a little high, but everything on track for a 1999-style year. Meaning cooler, with phenolic ripeness at lower sugar levels, and great natural balance.

Every time I drink an older bottle of red wine, whether it is from Washington, California, or Bordeaux, and I see the alcohol noted as 12 or 12.5 or even 13% I can’t help but wonder how ripe is ripe enough?

Tasting through wines, however well made and delicious they may be, that are clocking at 15% or higher (and who knows how high they really are?), is hard work. It doesn’t matter how much you spit; you feel the alcohol. Is it really necessary to ripen every single grape to optimum sugar levels, sort out every berry that isn’t perfect, and extract the sweetest possible jammy fruit to make great wine? Or is that just the style of the era? It certainly didn’t happen 40 or 50 years ago, or any other time in the history of winemaking.

Is the present era really the best ever, or simply an aberration? How ripe is ripe enough?

PS: Yes, I am aware that this photo is not showing vinifera grapes, so no need to excoriate me for that. I took it myself, and I think it makes the point.


MagnumGourmet said...

I would say that there are two primary causes.
1: Wine as cocktail
What's the need to have balanced, food friendly wines if you only ever drink it outside of a meal setting.
2: Winemakers chasing the "score"
For all the talk about problems of high alcohol wines, they keep getting big scores. Critics drive scores. Scores drive consumers. Consumer demand drives higher prices. Higher alcohol loosely correlates into more money for winemakers.

Greg Harrington said...

I recently had a bottle of 1970 Petrus, that was undrinkable due to heat damage. Bummer. For kicks, we sent it to the lab to see its "makeup." 12.3% alcohol.

PaulG said...

Magnum - I have heard the high alcohol = high scores argument over and over, but I wonder if it's actually been statistically proven? As a reviewer who often scores wines, I try to be alcohol -neutral. I don't ding a wine for being high, but I certainly don't reward it. I drink and love Euro wines, or older wines (pre-1990) from the U.S. that kept the alcohol in check.

Greg - that's my point. Pétrus @ 12.3%. Sorry about the heat damage, but it wasn't from too much alcohol!

Unknown said...

I don't know... we have some 14%+ alcohol wines from Red Mountain this year... Many other area are a bit lower, but not a whole lot... Malic acids are high. OTOH, some of the cooler locations are really struggling. I've seen numbers from a couple of vineyards and wondering how they are going to ripen those grapes this year... Also, I'm hearing dreadful things in Oregon. A well known vineyard was reported at 19 brix on their Pinot Noir yesterday. Time is running out...

Anonymous said...

I thought the photo was of tomatoes.

PaulG said...

Tomatoes they are; you win the bragging rights.

Javier Alfonso said...

Can someone please get me a phenolic ripeness meter?

Anonymous said...

I saw a YouTube clip showing that Lodi was having an incredible season this year. It's amazing how much you can learn from mini-documentaries on YouTube. (Then again, it was a marketing piece, so not exactly PBS Frontline in journalistic reliability.)

Anonymous said...

I recently read a compelling argument that points to different aspects of vititculture may be the cause. Clonal research, canopy management, green harvest, and decreased virus in vines. The source is I do not want to elaborate, because I am not the author but the article was written after tasting a verticle of California Cabernet Sauvignon going back into the 80s and noting the 2% increase in abv.

Todd said...

Ripe is when ... the seeds are brown, the flavors are tasty, skins are thin (not pulpy), stems lignify, etc. This is the first year I've taken samples and tested them for sugars. I've considered brix one of the less informative indicators (and it can encourage early picking). I did it today because it seems to be what everybody is talking about. (For the record, we were at 21.4 to 22.6 degrees brix today, we should be just fine. Not sure I'll bother testing again.)

I think Anon has a valid point for why alcohols have been getting higher - lower cropping/green harvest and canopy management especially. I also think it helps to imagine what a vineyard owner would look for in a site and when selecting clones/varietals. If option A can achieve perfect ripeness with optimal sugars in many years but might not get ripe in cooler vintages, while option B will almost always get ripe, the grower would tend to select option B - with A you can make great wine, but you go out of business every third year! With B, the sugars might be a bit high at ripeness most years but the fruit will get ripe even in cooler vintages. You don't plant grapes that won't almost always achieve ripeness. Accordingly the bell curve will have a median on the high side of optimal, since that is less bad than having a significant part of the tail of the curve on the low side of optimal. Green flavors just aren't tasty. Gotta limit downside risk.

(I bet a lot of NW gardeners this year are glad they don't grow tomatoes for a living!)

MagnumGourmet said...


I'd be more than willing to come up with statistical analysis if you are willing to provide the raw data. Give me one full year's worth of scores along with the wine and alcohol % (this is where it gets tricky, do you track it?) and I will condense it into elevator speech.

PaulG said...

Anon & Todd, I agree that much of the "blame" for the rise in alcohol levels rests with modern vineyard practices – clonal selections, GPS row orientation, leaf pulling, green harvest, berry-by-berry sorting – and a few "tricks" in the winery, such as super yeasts that don't die when alcohol hits 16%. But somehow, the rational behind all this seems to be that "the critics" give higher scores to these wines. Some critics do. Some don't. A lot of buyers and retailers would prefer to avoid them. I truly believe it's just a fad, a trend, a style, an aberration.

Magnum - I appreciate the offer but I have no way to compile that raw data. Any grad students out there want to give it a shot? The Wine Enthusiast data base ( often lists alcohol for the wines reviewed.

Erika Szymanski said...

This grad student would love to take on the project, but I'll admit that it's a bit outside my usual focus (Brettanomyces-lactic acid bacteria metabolic interactions.) What with the vast variety of "wine scores" on the market today, too, feasibility would necessitate narrowing down to some kind of subset of scores. Doing so immediately implicates the potential for bias and questions of significance. The situation of whether market supply and style drives consumer preferences or vice-versa reminds me of the fashion industry. I wonder, has anyone studied that question in fashion? Or food?

And regarding the "phenolics ripeness meter," just hold on for a few more years. We're working on it.

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