The Slippery Slope of Ripeness

It's not defined as, um, crisply as you might think
Mar 17, 2014

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.

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