When is a grape ripe?

Christian Eedes recently wrote an account of a new releases tasting at the winery Clos Malverne in his online wine column, Gulp. Proprietor Seymour Pritchard’s comments led Eedes to observe that the cellar had made a decision to back down from picking their grapes quite as late as they used to. While the style of wine made from these riper grapes seemed to have brought the winery successes in the short term, Pritchard came to the conclusion that they were not doing the label any good in the medium term. The fuller, richer, more alcoholic wines may have garnered competition attention but at the same time they had become wines of a completely different style from those that had drawn people to the label in the first place.

It’s an interesting shift, and this writer would have hoped that this move away from super-ripe harvesting is a stylistic correction based on an aesthetic preference for wines with less alcoholic power and more finesse, but if it is the market that is beginning to resist and force the change, so be it, since I believe our industry needs urgently to halt the current slide from wine into alco-berry juice.

It has become common currency in the past few years to speak about “physiological ripeness” as the critical point at which to harvest. The whole-scale adoption of the concept is in part a reaction to the Cape historic practise of harvesting according to sugar levels, and sometimes according to pH levels. These measures were treated as complete indicators. Then in more recent years this practise was questioned – were these grapes, picked at a fixed sugar concentration, “properly” ripe? Even though they had accumulated enough sugar, had their flavours developed fully, had the tannins ripened? At this point, the concept of “physiological ripeness” came as the answer. It holds that a good sugar level is only one of the signs of developing ripeness – in fact, sugars at levels previously considered normal were now seen as red herrings.

This is essentially because we do not struggle with sunlight in the Cape and sugars accumulate easily. So much so that sugars usually mass too quickly, outstripping the grapes’ physical maturation, and reaching a potential alcohol of say 13 degrees earlier in the season than comparable dates for grapes in Bordeaux (the influence of latitude, among other factors). Add this to influences such as varieties planted in the wrong places and the prevalence of virally infected vineyards and the accumulation of these other signs of ripeness continues to lag behind, while the sugar levels race away. Hence sugar levels are false indicators, goes the argument.

Further driven by the spectre of “greenness” in Cape wines, or physiological un-ripeness, (which is ironically likely to be the result of virus and impossible to escape through further ripening) this new ideal of ripeness, physiological ripeness, was therefore deemed to be at considerably higher sugar level for most grapes, with potential alcohols of 15 and even 16 percent in red wines now quickly becoming common. As over-ripe as this would seem to many, these grapes are held to be “properly ripe”, because indicators like soft fruit tannins, more developed flavours, “ripe” (brown) pips and even slightly shrivelled skins are observed.

While it is certainly true that sugar alone is an imperfect indicator of balanced ripeness, and the notion of “physiological ripeness” has moved the industry away from unripe grapes, the typical result of this concept is a highly alcoholic wine.

It all, of course, depends on one’s definition of ideal ripeness. Let’s remind ourselves that ripeness is not an absolute, but rather a continuum. It is an interpretation – the combination of insight, experience, knowledge and some flash of genius – that leads a winemaker to pick at one or another point on this ripening curve for that particular block of vines. Later in this curve and green tannins may be avoided, only to get a wine that is lacking in natural acidity, with flavours that are less defined. The character of vintage will in turn always shift the “sweet spot” of ideal ripeness.

As the industry is now haunted by the fear of getting it wrong on the less-ripe side of the spectrum, most wineries have and still are erring on the side of extremely ripe – using indicators like brown pips and highly developed flavours, apparently the signs of “physiological ripeness”. Ripeness (extreme ripeness) is better than an accusation of “greenness” and the beauties of natural acidity and moderate potential alcohols seem to be necessary casualties.

Of course, I am making the assumption that a wine at 13-14 percent alcohol is the ideal – it certainly is where I prefer my dry table wines. More and more, grapes picked at “physiological ripeness” make me expect over-alcoholic, full and turgid wine. But is this the result of a poor interpretation of the state of physiological ripeness on the part of the winemaker, or a problem with the very concept of physiological ripeness – is it the very notion that is leading us astray?

In the latest edition of the Wine Report (DK 2006), Tom Stevenson rails against the meaning of physiological ripeness, calling it a “false god”. He points out that the factors that “brainwashed” winemakers look for in physiological ripeness (skin colour, seed ripeness, berry shrivel) are all indicators of the progress of ripeness on the scale, not a sign of any correct absolute point. The precise point of physiological ripeness is a chimera, an interpretation and not an absolute. What matters instead, he posits, is flavour ripeness – the point at which the winemaker decides that the flavours are stylistically in tune to what is desired.

Sceptics may immediately say that a concept like “flavour ripeness” is again highly subjective, and may be as meaningless as “physiological ripeness”. Yet if one takes flavour ripeness to include components like a decent acidity and a tolerable sugar level (these being key components of flavour), I can’t help feeling sympathetic to Stevenson’s definition. After all, fruit is paramount and the preservation and purity of the flavour of fruit is a solid foundation for any wine.

Allowing that the most important work has to take place well before grapes begin to ripen (with intelligent planting decisions and good viticulture), what I mainly like about the concept of flavour ripeness is that it could help stem the tide of over-alcoholic, jammy wines that are large in every respect, including expensive new oak to balance the over-developed fruit flavours and big alcohols, and are defended as coming from “physiologically ripe” grapes.

A case in point as told to me by a grower, who described how a winemaker visited a particular vineyard block, tasted the grapes and became very excited. “Let’s pick tomorrow – these grapes taste fantastic!” he said, but after the first flush of excitement, added: “but let me just run a test for physiological ripeness to make sure.” The result? Predictably, that the grapes needed to hang for a good week more.

The term “physiological ripeness” has quickly become the breeding ground for what many consider over-ripe wines, and to repeat what has been said so many times: these wines are fat and far from refreshing, the palate tires of them after a glass, they overpower food and their longevity is yet to be proven. Perhaps the admittedly imprecise term “flavour ripeness” will engender more elegant wines? It could suggest a “new” philosophy, with the emphasis again on the fruit, not the wood or the extraction.

The challenge remains that many tasting panels still reward bold, ripe wines, and in so doing they maintain the image of super-ripe wines. But if the example of Clos Malverne is anything to go by, the Cape wine industry may be turning a corner and realising that the over-correction from lean, less ripe wines has gone too far, and that all the answers do not lie in a far riper grape, but in a wine with good flavour, balance and elegance.

3 Replies to “When is a grape ripe?”

  1. To those of you who would prefer a quantitative measure (and easy-to-use chart) for ripeness, I offer the TABRIX method, which has been shown by our growers from wildly different growing regions to be a good indicator of ripeness.

    I would be happy to email you a TABRIX chart as I haven’t figured out how to link one here online.

    In short, the TABRIX method plots BRIX (percent sugar, measured by sacchrimeter) against titratable acids (TA). As the season progresses, roughly every few days a measure is taken of the grapes at random, and an “X” is plotted on the graph. After a half dozen measurements, it becomes clear that the curve will intercept that region of the graph designated as having attractive organoleptic (taste-perception) characteristics.

    Harvesting can then be fairly well predicted, and the results follow true to form.

    Working from UCDavis texts – and especially from the seminal works of Amaral et alia, I created this method to help out the numerous avid, but rather unscientific “gentleman farmers” in the Napa and Sonoma (California) regions to gauge their harvest schedule.

    Looking forward to hear from you!

    [email protected]
    Bob Lynch

  2. Bob, while not a winemaker, I would like to see the chart and ask a few of my winemaker friends to test it out during our forthcoming harvest. Are you simply sending it out, or is there a fee to use?

  3. bravo!
    Could this evoultion simply be a metaphor for the trite but true state of mankind. We are not capable of arriving at the “right place” with out first going to both extremes

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