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.