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harvey steiman at large

Ripeness

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Sep 10, 2008 12:41pm ET

The question of ripeness vs. over-ripeness hovers over everything that's going on in today's wine world. My buddy James Laube brought it up in his blog last week, and guest blogger Adam Lee weighed in on it this week. I grapple with it constantly in the wines I review, especially Australian Shiraz but also in warmer vintages of Oregon Pinot Noir, such as the 2006s I have been tasting this past week, when most of the best grapes were picked during a long, late heat wave.

Many Aussies I talk to, especially the ones leading the growing list of winemakers seeking more elegance in their powerful wines, like to contrast fresh fruit vs. dry fruit, not just on the vine but in the wine. They'll taste a wine and comment on whether the fruit character, let's say cherries, tastes like biting into a fresh Bing or chewing on a dried one. The modern guys look for that fresh taste.

In his blog, Adam focused on his big decision as a winemaker: when to pick. He described a typical vineyard, showing the right level of sugar (an indication of ripeness) but also green flavors and so much acidity that any wine made from those grapes would taste tart. Obviously he must wait for the right flavors, and by then the high sugar levels would produce an alcoholic wine.

And that is exactly why alcohol levels keep going up, especially in big-ticket wines. But I don't think it's really a when-to-pick issue. It's a how-to-grow-it issue. The only way we're going to get wines that have ripe flavors and alcohol, tannin and acidity levels is to retrain the vineyards.

That is a slow process. Grapevines like to settle into a pattern, a natural cycle of regrowth, fruiting, ripening and dormancy. Growers can control how severely they prune the vines, how many bunches and leaves to allow, how much sun exposure to give the grapes, how big a yield to aim for, and, in the New World, how much water to give the vines. Good growers can fine-tune all this to get the grapes to reach physiological maturity (proper balance of sugar, tannins and acids) in harmony with flavor development.

Vineyards in cooler climates have a leg up on this, which is why I find myself drinking more Pinot Noir from Oregon than California these days, and am developing an interest in Victorian and Western Australian Shiraz. The flavor profiles are different, but the typical balance of the wines seem more amenable to dinnertime consumption.

Warm climates can do better than they are. Getting this right should be the top priority for the viticulture mavens at UC Davis and Fresno State, and the University of Adelaide in Australia. It should be the rallying cry for top growers. Instead, successful wineries seem reluctant to tamper with whatever they're doing that is selling their wines for big bucks.

So change is slow. Meanwhile, we're stuck with Pinot Noirs with 15 percent alcohol if we want deep flavors in them (although Oregon seems to get them at 13.9 to 14.5 percent). And rich Shiraz can top 16 percent and still feel balanced. But I would rather not have to decide between richness in flavor and the ability to drink more than one or two glasses.

So far, American wine drinkers (and truth to tell, wine drinkers all over the world) have opted for ripe flavors and put up with high alcohols to get them. I hope the days comes soon when we can have our ripe flavors and not have to worry about high alcohol levels to get them. The grape farmers know the answer. They just need to get down to it.

Pierre Cadieux
Montreal —  September 12, 2008 10:07am ET


Aha! I was precisely getting more and more frustated that very often when I buy high-end wines (rated close to 100) the alcoholic content is around 15%. I used to prefer wines in the 12-13.5% range, but now almost all the ones I like are 14%.

But 15-16% is a bit rough on my 50-year-old body. I am not a wine intellectual nor a wine collector. I am simply a wine drinker, and I want to have a pleasant bottle with a nice meal and good company - 1 on 1 with 1 bottle, simple.

So what I would like to find are highly rated wines with 14% alcohol or less, but neither the Wine Spectator search (nor Robert Parker's) allows me to specify what range of alcoholic content I am looking for. I would find this very useful, because it is one factor that is starting to have a major impact on the overall drinking experience. Is there hope?
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  September 12, 2008 12:29pm ET
Two safe bets among the wines I review are Australian Rieslings (generally around 12.5 to 13 percent) and Oregon Pinot Noirs (about half of which are under 14). Both categories provide plenty of personality without extremely high alcohol.
Kirk R Grant
Ellsworth, ME —  September 12, 2008 1:29pm ET
I agree with Pierre...I too prefer wines that tend to be in the 12.5%-13.5% range. It would be nice if we could get a search feature here to allow that. I've also noticed that wines in the mid 90's in Oregon (1996 Beaux Freres) have 13.5% yet the recent bottles are in the 14%+ 2003-2006. I realize that balance is key...but it is nice to be able to have more than a glass or two with dinner...
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  September 13, 2008 5:24pm ET
The problem with any kind of search for alcohol level is that the law allows way too broad a leeway on the label for the information to be meaningful. The alcohol statement could be accurate, and in most cases is, but the law allows 1.5 percent either way. So something labeled 14 percent alcohol could be anything from 12.5 to 15.5.
Mike Officer
September 14, 2008 11:48am ET
Just a slight clarification Harvey. If the wine label says 14% then the true alcohol must be between 12.5% and 14.0%, i.e., it's +/- 1.5% under 14% provided you don't cross the tax boundary of 14%. (Federal excise tax on wine is 3 times lower on 14% and under.) However, over 14%, it's +/- 1%, again without crossing the tax boundary. Hence, for something labeled 14.1%, the true alcohol must be between 14.1% and 15.1%. That's why so many labels back in the '70s and '80s said 12.5%, because a vintner was covered between 11% and 14%. But as soon as vintners started to consistently cross the 14% boundary, we started seeing a lot of 14.9%s on labels as that covers wines that are 14.1% through 15.9%. Makes the alcohol gap between wines of decades ago with today seem much larger than it really is.By the way, I totally agree that in many cases, higher alcohols are a viticultural issue. Too many vineyards are undercropped and overexposed. What worked to get rid of pyrazines (green pepper/herbaceous flavors and aromas) of the '60s and '70s is biting us in the proverbial you-know-what in this much warmer climate. Maybe we'll see a return of the California Sprawl! ;-)
James Pierce
Hillsborough, CA —  September 15, 2008 5:16pm ET
Have you been to Hinman Silvan Ridge while in Oregon?(www.silvanridge.com) We have been loyal customers for years (we lived in Eugene from 1979-2000) and really enjoy what they have done with their Pinot Noir. Our personal favorite is their Early Muscat (don't laugh, but everyone we have ever served it to has raved about it and it goes with all types of food). They are just south of Eugene, on the way to King Estates (another overlooked jewel). Way to go with your blog Harvey. GO DUCKS!!!Rose Bowl!!!

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