This is a topic of much controversy here in wine country within winemaking and grape-growing circles. This is mostly due to the fact that every winemaker “knows” that the way they cultivate their grapes is “the best way” to do it. In a way, winemakers are much like artists. From grape to glass, the process of making a wine can take 3 years, from picking the grapes, crushing them, fermenting them, aging them in barrel and every step is crucial, and by the end of that process, these wines become their masterpieces. But the first step, growing the grapes is often overlooked. The truth is, decisions here can make huge differences in flavor.
Wine grapes achieve full maturity, and phenolic ripeness (flavor ripeness) anywhere between 21-26% brix on average depending on the vineyard, and depending on the varietal. A high sugar level at harvest (brix: percentage of sugar in aqueous solution) can produce a MASSIVE wine. Lower sugar levels at harvest will produce a much softer wine for the most point. BUT THIS IS A VERY BLACK AND WHITE APPROACH.
Winemakers who really know there stuff don’t make decisions purely on sugar levels in grapes. When a wine grape is full developed and ripe, the seed will be ‘ripe’ as well. If the seed of the grape if not fully ripened at the time of harvest can create vegetal components that taste a lot like bell pepper. When a grape is fully developed, these winemakers will chew the skins of the grape and know that it tastes exactly how it should to be harvested. BUT, the tricky thing is, depending on the vineyard, grapes will mature at different rates. So what if a grape is fully developed, but has a lower brix level?
So here is the debate amongst winemakers. (lets assume a vineyard of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes achieves phenolic ripeness at 23% brix)
Even if the grape is fully ripened, it should remain on the vine until the brix get to a higher level to create a bolder wine as a final product. 26% brix will be perfect. BIG wines get BIG ratings, and therefore sell a lot better. More power of fruit!!!
The grapes are phenolically ripe, the seeds are ripe, and to maintain the purity of the fruit at its perfectly ripened state, LETS PICK ‘EM NOW!! Any waiting will lose the purity of the flavors produced by the grape at its perfect phenolic ripeness. Who gives a damn about what rating it gets.
THE DOWNSIDES TO EACH and ABUSE
The downside to argument #1 is that the purity of flavor could be diminished. You could be sacrificing the purity of the flavor in order to attain more overall flavor. In addition, some vineyards just ripen differently. After phenolic ripeness is achieved, some vineyards will start to LOOSE flavor, or develop funky ‘off-notes’. When that extra sugar is fermented, it is converted into a higher alc% which could overpower the final flavors of the wine. Also, things like acidity, crucial to the aging of a wine starts to fall off at higher brix levels, so the potential for aging diminishes greatly.
The downside to argument #2 is that the power of the fruit may never develop. It will always be a bit less dark and inky as one developed to a higher sugar level. Although the purity of the flavor is all there, the really slam of fruit on the palate won’t be as intense.
ABUSE of ripening is often found in high end producers who choose to keep the grapes on the vine up to 27% brix to really maximize the intensity of the fruit. Most wineries purchase grapes from local vineyard owners who specialize in vineyard management, and produce the best grapes available. They sometimes strong-arm the grape grower into waiting to pick until 27% brix. From there, the winery adds water to lower the sugar levels, and get lower alcohol levels as a result. This process does not affect the overall taste of the wine in the end all too much….BUT…This SUCKS for the vineyard owner.
When a grape continues to ripen, it will start to raisin and shrink in size. This shrinking, results in a much smaller tonnage/acre purchased from the vineyard owner (instead of maybe 5 tons/acre that number will drop to 3.5 tons per acre). The winery purchases 35 tons of grapes at 27% brix at $5400/ton accounting for 10 acres of vineyard production. If the vineyard owner sold them the grapes at 23% brix only 7 acres of vineyard would be needed for that production. The vineyard owner loses almost $81,000 from the 3 extra acres that could have been producing grapes at 23% brix and sold elsewhere. The winery then adds water and nutrients to the crushed grapes to lower it back down to 24.0 to 24.5% brix to achieve a lower alcohol level while maintaining a more extracted flavor (saves a winery a ton of money in taxes if the alcohol level can be brought down into a lower alc content bracket.)
WHERE DOES THAT LEAVE YOU AS A WINE DRINKER
Honestly, this is hard to say, but unless you have a good understanding behind a wineries practices, you won’t have any idea…These are things they don’t openly like to say…BUT there are 2 things you should look for….
BRIX: A lot of wineries will put a wine’s harvest info online..and most people look at this info like it is just wine snobbery…but it’s actually pretty important…typically if a wine says it was picked at 26-28 brix, odds are, extended hang time was used
TASTE: when you taste a wine, look for notes that taste like raisin, fruit punch, Hi-C, red licorice or even taste kind of like a late harvest port. Typically those are flavors that come from a wine that has been overly extracted or has gone through an extended hang-time during harvest season. Also wineries who tend to use a TON of oak in their wines, use that extra vanilla-like flavor to soften those flavors a bit and “round them out” so that the power of the fruit is noticable, but imperfections are hard to interpret, as well as giving the wine a bit better shelf life from the wood tannin. But we will get into oak on another post in this winemaking style/philosophy series.
Some vineyards just flat out take longer to ripen, while sugars climb. So phenolic ripeness isn’t achieved until 26-27% brix. While I typically steer clear of valley floor fruit at high brix, the mountain vineyards of Howell Mountain, Diamond Mountain, Spring Mountain, Mount Veeder and others achieve perfect ripeness at these higher sugar levels sometimes. But they, unlike the valley floor fruit can maintain powerful tannin structure even at these higher brix %. This is something to keep in mind, NOT something to use as an absolute RULE.