Log In / Join Now

harvey steiman at large

The Slippery Slope of Ripeness

It's not defined as, um, crisply as you might think
Photo by: Chris Leschinsky
Calera's Josh Jensen, a founding member of IPOB, cautions against "jumping the gun" with underripe grapes.

Posted: Mar 17, 2014 4:39pm ET

Ripeness (and its kissing cousin, alcohol) seems to be the wine issue of the year. So I made it a point to attend winery group In Pursuit of Balance's panel discussion on the subject last week at its San Francisco confab and tasting.

The panel, led by London-based wine writer Jamie Goode, included Justin Willett of Tyler in Santa Barbara, Josh Jensen of Calera in Mt. Harlan, Wells Guthrie of Copaín in Anderson Valley and Katy Wilson of LaRue in Sonoma Coast. Each presented two wines, exploring just how much ripeness matters in determining a Pinot Noir's quality.

Some of those involved in IPOB get their backs up when I say they promote the idea of lower-alcohol wines. One of the founders, Raj Parr (of Sandhi and Domaine de la Côte in Santa Barbara and now Evening Land in Oregon), gets especially grumpy on this topic. "It's not about low alcohol, it's about balanced wines," he insisted. He pointed to Jensen, another founding member, whose wines can exceed 14 percent alcohol (a dividing line for many these days).

Fair enough, but true colors emerge. The discussion clearly celebrated lower-alcohol wines. Goode, for example, quoted a Central Otago (New Zealand) vintner he had recently interviewed. In 2011 and 2012, weather conditions forced the Otago growers to pick earlier than usual. The resulting wines had "more freshness, precision and poise, and arguably better interpretations of their sites," Goode noted. "That changed the mentality of the whole region. It gave people courage to go out and pick earlier."

At another point, Guthrie described what he wants to taste in his grapes in deciding when to pick. "There's a point where you switch from apple and lemon to something you might want to eat," he said. "I want to pick as early as possible and still get the flavors." Early picking, of course, means less sugar and less resulting alcohol.

Whenever anyone suggested that perhaps something slightly riper than what actually was done might have made a better wine, you could feel the unease in the room. Sometimes it came right out into the open. To show the difference between earlier and later picking dates, Jensen offered two 2012s from his Mills Vineyard. The first, picked Aug. 30, had 12.9 percent alcohol. It was tight, had holes in the flavor profile, and faded on the finish. The other, picked Sept. 17, finished with 13.8 percent alcohol. Still tight enough for everyone to agree it indeed had finesse, it was much more aromatic and complete.

Goode asked for a show of hands. By a large margin the audience preferred the higher alcohol wine. He seemed astonished by this. In response to a later question Jensen pointed to the early-picked wine as a good example of "jumping the gun" by picking before the grapes were ripe enough. "That first wine of mine has too much green flavor for me."

Goode responded, "But that's what I liked about it."

And there you have it. Balance for one is, for another, a wine awry, something we should keep in mind when we talk about this stuff. Some of us like green tomatoes, some of us prefer them dead ripe. There really is no single answer, a thought that came to mind when Wilson's two wines demonstrated the difference between a warm vintage and a cool year.

She showed a 2010 and a 2012, both from the Rice-Spivak Vineyard in the Sebastopol Hills end of Sonoma Coast. She said she tries to pick when the grapes still taste like strawberry, before the flavor profile goes into the cherry range. "When to pick is specific to the time and the place," she noted. "Every year brings you something different."

Counterintuitively, the cooler 2010 sported 13.2 percent alcohol, higher than the warmer 2012, which clocked in at 12.6. She picked the 2010 later in the cool vintage hoping to get the balance of flavors she wanted. It felt light, but complete, tart, with fine tannins and a bit of an orange tone to the color. The 2012, picked at lower sugar levels in the warm year "before it turned to cherries," had less fruit expression, but what was there tasted ripe enough. At a mere 12.6 it was a much more expressive wine, so there might well be something to the idea of picking early, in a cooler region, in a warmer vintage.

Guthrie also presented two vintages, a 2010 and a 2007 from the same portion of Kiser Vineyard in Anderson Valley. The 2010, a slender 12.4 percent alcohol, had a lovely transparency and none of the sharp acidity that one might expect from such a low-alcohol wine. It was soft, and got better in the the glass, filling out with further sips. The 2007, at 13.5 percent from a warmer vintage, had more generosity up front, nice density and length. I would happily drink either one.

Willett poured two 2011s to demonstrate the effect of region. Although the alcohol levels were similar (13.4 and 13.6 percent), the one from Sanford and Benedict Vineyard in Sta. Rita Hills, the cooler region, was very tart, with red berry and pomegranate flavors. The one from Bien Nacido Vineyard in Santa Maria showed softer texture and more generosity.

On my scorecard the lower-alcohol wines won two of the four wine-to-wine confrontations. That's about what I would have predicted. I'm not sure that's what the group expected, though.

Goode got many in the audience nodding heads when he said, in his introduction, that he sees overripeness as a huge problem in California, arguing that it has a masking effect on the expression of site in the resulting wine. This perception certainly was the impetus for IPOB. He noted that whisky tasters intentionally add water to their samples to lower alcohol levels so they can better sense aromatics. What he didn't say was that the customary one-to-one addition of water reduces alcohol levels in spirits to about 20 percent, still a whole lot more than the 14 percent so many consider to be a ceiling for wine.

At the end of the discussion I was left with the thought that, as much as we would like to think these winemakers have a good idea of what they're doing, like most honest vintners I know they are still flailing around and hoping for the best. Sometimes what they believe works, sometimes it doesn't. The good ones look at the results honestly and learn from it.

Although a disturbing percentage struck me as too lean and lacking intensity as I walked around the later tasting, I sense that a number of the IPOB vintners feel they might have gone too far toward the slender end of the ripeness range.  Focusing on Pinot Noir, I found more wines to like compared to my disappointment last year.

Hands down my favorites were the Sonoma Coast 2012s from Littorai. The vibrant, focused and highly perfumed Pivot Vineyard, with its chewy but refined tannins, and the Platt Vineyard, showing remarkable focus, presence, depth and length, were simply stunning.

I also was won over by the freshness and vibrancy of the Failla 2012s. Mineral notes added extra depth and charm to the floral and red berry flavors of the Sonoma Coast bottling and the plum and berry of Keefer Ranch. Savoy Vineyard seemed to float its plum and cherry flavors on a broader frame.

Red Car Estate 2012, from Fort Ross-Seaview, floored me with its focused black cherry, floral and mint flavors, braced by a taut finish. I also liked its vivid, much lighter Platt Vineyard bottling for minerality and length.

Each bottling in Parr's range, both the estate 2012s of Domaine de la Côte and Sandhi (the négociant side of the business), impressed me with its distinct personality, delivering vibrant flavors on crisp frames.

Among Copaín's 2011s, I liked the fruit flavors of Wentzel better than the savory profile of Kiser En Bas, but their density in a light vintage was compelling.

Tasting Twomey's wines (I especially liked the sleek, silky, red-fruited Anderson Valley 2012), I listened as winemaker Daniel Baron made his case. "I look for cooler sites that will maintain acid balance and get ripe character at lower alcohol levels," he said. "I want to make low-alcohol wines that express site."

But nah, it's not about alcohol. If it's about "balance," who gets to define it? I think we each have the right to decide that for ourselves.

Benoit Souligny
quebec canada —  March 17, 2014 10:25pm ET
my favorite pinots this year where the las alturas belle glos 2011,Paul Hobbs russian river 2011 and belle glos dairyman 2012 so yes i do prefer high alcohol in my pinots don't really look for balance I prefer in your face fruit and long finish,i want acidity but it dosen't have too balance out,I ll take the tradeoff fruit for acidity anyday.
Glenn Keeler
SoCal —  March 18, 2014 12:38pm ET
Nice piece Harvey. Speaking of balance, I think this is one of your more balanced posts on this subject. I agree alcohol is only one component that goes into making a balanced wine and just looking at the number is not going to give you the whole story of that wine. I will say however, that for my palate, alcohol in pinot noir above 14-15% in general does not taste balanced to me. I have encountered exceptions of course and Calera is a great example of that, but more often than not the flavor profile and the alcohol sensation tends to be off putting to me above those levels. At the same time I really dislike overtly green flavors in wine so it’s a delicate balance for sure.

I do think it’s great that this group of winemakers have come together to discuss balance in wine and challenge the way wine is being made in CA. Even if the results as you say might have gone too far toward the slender end of the ripeness range, hopefully there is a lot of learning and sharing of ideas that will only lead to increased wine quality across the board in the future. I’m also glad that there are more style choices for CA wine drinkers than ever before. If you want a big and bold pinot, a lean and mean pinot or anything in between, there are a lot of options these days. I also agree with you on the 2012’s from Littorai. Stunning wines.
Steve Roberts
SLC, UT —  March 18, 2014 2:04pm ET
Balance, for ALL wine drinkers, cannot be defined as a particular alcohol level, a particular acid content or a particular amount of fruitiness. Human beings all have unique abilities of perceiving their environments. Some people can't hear certain tones, others can't see certain colors. And, I'm Sure that there are wide variations in our senses of smell and taste. With that in mind, it seems rather absurd that a group is trying to determine what balance in wine is when it is such a unique and personal thing.
Michael Twelftree
Malvern, South Australia —  March 19, 2014 6:33am ET
Harvey, great article
What amazes me is how in control of the process these winemakers believe themselves to be........ There is so much you are not in control off and as a winemaker you only have the opportunity to make a few best guesses at a few opportune times in the winemaking process……... Alchemy reins supreme for me.
I have enjoyed Goode's Blog and books but he does seem to be preaching from the pulpit, which we all know is a very slippy slope when it comes to the complex subject that is a glass of wine.
MT
Vince Liotta
Elmhurst, Il —  March 19, 2014 9:27pm ET
Harvey, yes this is interesting stuff and thoroughly presented by you.

And Mr. Twelftree's humility about control is amusing and perhaps ironic coming from someone whose wines seem to display as much control (in a good way) as any producer. But he succeeds in painting the reality of human's relative vulnerability in the face of Mother Nature.

Harvey, I have to disagree, though, that "balance" is a subjective term which "each have the right to decide that for ourselves". TASTE is subjective--and of course, all should decide for themselves. Balance, however, is grounded in science, and a wine's components of alcohol, acidity and tannins which contribute to balance are all measurable.

It seems only a few months ago that you and James Laube frequently defended high alcohol wines by asserting that the good ones were still "in balance". And these same wines received the (objective) high scores to back this up. Correct me if I'm wrong, but you seemed to believe that there is objective criteria by which a wine can be deemed "in balance"?

To me, balance can and should be an objective term, particularly if one purports to critique wines objectively. The extent to which we disagree on what is balanced is not a question of personal preference, but rather our short-comings in being objective. (i.e. one may still prefer an objectively less-balanced wine)

Tom

Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  March 19, 2014 10:32pm ET
Tom, your thoughtful comment opens up many avenues for discussion. I love your confidence that it's possible to be completely objective about balance. However, I've had countless opportunities to taste wines from the same grape variety, even the same region, that have the same alcohol, total acid, pH, residual sugar, tannins, extract, all the measurable quantities identical (or virtually so), but anyone could taste the difference in flavor profile and judge the balances to be different.

Truth is, you can't measure balance objectively by adding up component parts, because we all have different sensitivities to those very components. Bright and lively to one is sharp and acidic to another. Moderate alcohol for one is blazingly hot to someone else. Tough tannins for one are velvety and rich to another. That's just physical sensitivity. Factor in flavor preferences (do you like green tomatoes as much as this other guy?), and it really does come down to something very personal.

When I speak of balance in wines that are very ripe, I am thinking of wines that might have alcohol contents north of 14 but somehow manage to bring all their elements together harmoniously and soulfully, at least to my taste, wines that can float massive clouds of flavor without feeling heavy.

That's my take. If your tastes run to different criteria, you won't agree, just as you might find one film critic's perfect movie impossibly boring. All I can do is give you an honest opinion, balance included.
Vince Liotta
Elmhurst, Il —  March 20, 2014 8:12pm ET
Harvey, Well I guess you'll just need to look me up next time you need objective advice on balance? (:

And you're right, this does open many avenues of discussion, so we'll leave some stones unturned, but I will say this: If you don't believe that a wine's balance is grounded in objective reality, then Wine Spectator's 100 pt. system and all the steps taken to make its ratings "objective" are in serious jeopardy. Just because different individuals taste and perceive reality differently, does not mean that reality does not exist. Of course, our ability to be objective is limited, however, through experience and by focusing on components which are measurable, these limitations can be minimized.

For me, the key to a wine's quality is its structure. Structure determines its balance, ability to age, depth, complexity and more. Vinho Verde, and perhaps even Condrieu (made from Viognier which is naturally low in acidity) can never achieve 100 pt quality because they will never have the backbone to support the array of flavors and layers needed to achieve such a score.

Appreciate the discussion and your candor is refreshing as always.

Tom
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  March 20, 2014 10:37pm ET
I don't pretend that our 100-point scale is objective, and I don't think any of my colleagues here at Wine Spectator do, either. It simply reflects how highly each individual taster regards a wine.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  March 20, 2014 10:37pm ET
Tom, your thoughtful comment opens up many avenues for discussion. I love your confidence that it's possible to be completely objective about balance. However, I've had countless opportunities to taste wines from the same grape variety, even the same region, that have the same alcohol, total acid, pH, residual sugar, tannins, extract, all the measurable quantities identical (or virtually so), but anyone could taste the difference in flavor profile and judge the balances to be different.

Truth is, you can't measure balance objectively by adding up component parts, because we all have different sensitivities to those very components. Bright and lively to one is sharp and acidic to another. Moderate alcohol for one is blazingly hot to someone else. Tough tannins for one are velvety and rich to another. That's just physical sensitivity. Factor in flavor preferences (do you like green tomatoes as much as this other guy?), and it really does come down to something very personal.

When I speak of balance in wines that are very ripe, I am thinking of wines that might have alcohol contents north of 14 but somehow manage to bring all their elements together harmoniously and soulfully, at least to my taste, wines that can float massive clouds of flavor without feeling heavy.

That's my take. If your tastes run to different criteria, you won't agree, just as you might find one film critic's perfect movie impossibly boring. All I can do is give you an honest opinion, balance included.
Ian Hongell
Barossa Valley Australia —  March 23, 2014 7:11pm ET
Its underwhelming to pigeon hole the complexity of wine to one declared parameter.
The two most important things here are introducing people to the diversity of wine and then accepting what their palates decide. Well done
Nice to read a story on this event Harvey.
IH

Would you like to comment? Want to join or start a discussion?

Become a WineSpectator.com member and you can!
To protect the quality of our conversations, only members may submit comments. Member benefits include access to more than 315,000 reviews in our Wine Ratings Search; a first look at ratings in our Insider, Advance and Tasting Highlights; Value Wines; the Personal Wine List/My Cellar tool, hundreds of wine-friendly recipes and more.
Most Recent Posts
May 2, 2017
Behind the Pairings

WineRatings+ app: Download now for 340,000+ ratings.