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How Ripe Is Right?

Drilling down into the ideal alcohol kerfuffle
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Feb 26, 2014 11:02am ET

Alcohol, a necessary byproduct of fermenting ripe grapes, seems to have polarized the wine community these past few years. Most wine drinkers seem to like ripe flavors in wine, and don't mind if alcohol levels are higher, but a vocal minority wants to change that. There's even an organization of vintners in California, In Pursuit of Balance, which stumps for lower levels of alcohol.

This dichotomy jumped out at me when I read reactions to a recent study that reported consumer responses to Cabernet Sauvignons made at different alcohol levels. The study, conducted in Sydney, presented 104 consumers who drink red wine at least once a week with five different Cabernet Sauvignons harvested sequentially, with alcohol levels varying from 12 percent up to 15.5 percent, and asked them to give each wine a preference score on a scale of 0 to 9. Ratings for each of the five wines on nearly two dozen sensory attributes pertaining to appearance, aroma and palate were determined in a separate panel comprising 12 trained tasters from the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI).

"Consumer testing of the wines revealed that the lowest-alcohol wines (12 percent) were the least preferred and wines with ethanol concentration between 13 percent and 15.5 percent were equally liked by consumers," the study's abstract read.

The critical responses to the study's results were predictable. Those arguing for lower-alcohol wines pointed to one finding, that the tasters most liked wines at 13.6 percent alcohol. At a time in which 14-plus in red wines is common, 13.6 is a fairly modest number. However, there was no statistical difference between the preferences for wines at 13.6 percent and those at 14.2 and 15.5 percent, suggesting that higher alcohols don't really bother a majority of wine drinkers. Those arguing for ripeness noted that a relatively small minority of the tasters seemed to like the lowest-alcohol wines.

For some helpful interpretation, I contacted AWRI's Dr. Keren Bindon, who conducted the study.

First of all, she did not set out to measure alcohol preferences. She and her colleagues wanted to zero in on harvest time and grape maturity, looking at such things as tannins, color and flavor compounds in wines picked at various sugar levels (which, of course, translates into alcohol after fermentation). Then they asked consumer tasters their preferences.

The chemistry findings, which first appeared in a 2012 paper in Food Chemistry, are not surprising. Grapes from one vineyard in Langhorne Creek (a region in South Australia with a similar climate to Barossa and McLaren Vale) were picked at different times as they ripened in the 2010 vintage (a good vintage, neither too warm nor especially cool). The various sugar levels produced wines ranging from 12 percent to 15.5 percent alcohol. Analysis found significant changes as the grapes ripened, including more grape tannins and less seed tannins. Riper wines were more purple. In tasting the wines, a professional panel noted that green flavors diminished and fruit flavors increased. More complexity came from higher levels of volatile esters.

I am not surprised at the consumer tasting results, either, published online last month in Food Chemistry. In general, tasters liked the darker color, dark fruit flavors, fruit aftertaste and viscosity in the riper wines. They did not like the higher acidity and green notes in the wines made from earlier-picked grapes, and turned thumbs down on earthy and vegetal flavors.

That pretty much describes about 44 percent of the tasters, one of three distinct statistical groupings. Another 33 percent preferred the wines with the most color and density, even if they detected some heat from higher alcohols. But 23 percent preferred wines with redder colors, tart acidity and green aromas and flavors.

Remember, the wines in this test were designed to measure preferences for early-picked vs. later-picked grapes. Other studies focus on alcohol percentage by adjusting alcohol in wines made from fully ripe grapes. And we're talking about Cabernet Sauvignon here, a grape with flavors that change dramatically with ripeness.

"We were simply looking at ‘how low can you go?' in the vineyard by harvesting grapes at different ripeness stages (i.e. sugar)," Dr. Bindon said. "Consumers most likely did not reject the lower-alcohol wines based on alcohol content alone," she added. "There's a strong chance that they disliked other things in the lower-alcohol wines that were related to lower color, harsher acidity and green characters, rather than the lack of alcohol itself."

That squares with my view on ripening, that there is a point at which the grapes reach a stage where optimal flavors appear and the green flavors diminish. If the acid-to-sugar ratio isn't totally out of whack, that's usually where those vintners pick who make the most expressive wines. Letting the grapes hang for riper flavors can produce even more flavors and complexity, but can also go over the top, picking up dried-fruit character and unpleasant "heat" from the extra alcohol.

A new wave of vintners seeking more delicate styles, especially in California, can make beautifully elegant wines. I've enjoyed my share of them. But fearing too much alcohol, these vintners would rather pick early and err on the side of "green," convincing themselves this is what they like. I am left shaking my head. Dr. Bindon put it more scientifically. "For individual growers and producers there is a need to better understand how the flavor profile of their variety and site changes with ripening, and what the minimum harvest point is to get the right flavor spectrum for the style they plan to produce."

An acid test for low-alcohol wines, as it were, is the 2011 vintage in California and Oregon. Grapes struggled to get ripe in cold, wet weather. And yet, a surprising number of Oregon vintners managed to make really good Pinot Noirs, with ripe flavors and real depth, at alcohol levels as low as 12 percent. So it's possible, if your vineyard is in the right place and you have the patience.

For those of us tasting and choosing wines, whether we are writers, sommeliers, retailers or just friends advising friends, I say taste the wine before you decide if you like it. Don't reject it if the number on the label doesn't jibe with preconceived notions. Let's quit obsessing about alcohol.

This discussion dovetails with another trend I find disturbing. Some high-profile wine writers are suggesting that that they shouldn't have to taste blind, that it's unnecessary unless you have an agenda. I would submit that a preference for low-alcohol wines is an agenda. Just how much alcohol is present is not so obvious when you can't see the label.

Sandy Fitzgerald
Whitesville, KY —  February 26, 2014 2:05pm ET

Great article. I do believe that cab sav might yield different results in the experiment than perhaps pinot noir or some white wines. For me with PN, the answer becomes: It's to ripe when the wine tastes like a cherry cola spiked with alcohol. With most wines, it's when the acidity gets to low and the wines start to taste flabby. As you well stated, Most don't like acid bombs with vegetal flavors, but over ripeness can be equally as bad. I don't pay near as much attention to alcohol levels as I do balance and fruit flavors.
Vince Liotta
Elmhurst, Il —  February 26, 2014 9:21pm ET
Thanks for passing along this interesting research, Harvey. While I certainly agree, "Don't reject it if the number on the label doesn't jibe with preconceived notions," I have some concerns about using this data to support it.

Since " Grapes from one vineyard in Langhorne Creek were picked at different times. . .", yielding wines from 12 to 15.5% alcohol, it seems intuitive that a number somewhere in the middle, 13.6%, was preferred. Sort of like Goldilocks and the 3 bears. The wines at the 2 extremes were too extreme and less likely to have been picked at optimal ripeness.

Furthermore, since just this one distinct region was used, and if one is to agree with the notion of terroir, then for any given vintage, there can only be one level of ripeness which authentically expresses that terroir. Any deviation, be it too low or too high, will by definition be an inferior expression of the terroir of that site.

I also couldn't help being reminded of an article in the Chicago Tribune, it must be 15 or 20 years ago now. It told the story of 10 wine professionals who tasted blind, wines from around the world. The French wines finished in the middle, just average. However, when the wines were re-tasted, paired with food, the French wines came out all on top. So, whether one prefers tart or rich, light or heavy dry or sweet, really does depend on the context as well as the personality.

And right now, with sub-zero temperatures in Chicago, this wine drinker enjoys Grand Cru Bordeaux, preferrably with 15 to 20 years age.


Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  February 27, 2014 8:07am ET
Vince, thanks for your thoughtful comments.

From a scientist's point of view, it's an illusion that 13.6 was the favorite. Statistically there was no difference in preference for the wines at 13,6, 14.2 and 15.5. Significantly, a different group preferred the higher alcohols, suggesting that you can't please everyone with anything you do as a vintner.

On the issue of what ripeness level best expresses terroir, some vineyards aren't very interesting until they get very ripe. Others produce their most distinctive characteristics at lower sugar levels and become fairly ordinary when they get to the same ripeness level as other nearby vineyards. As a grower you can't know until you try.
Vince Liotta
Elmhurst, Il —  February 27, 2014 7:06pm ET
Thanks again, Harvey. And your comment on terroir is exactly my point. Different vineyards/regions tend to show better at different ripeness levels, so to make the comparison fair, you would have to use different sites for the different ripeness levels, but then of course you are introducing other variables. . .

Glenn Keeler
SoCal —  February 28, 2014 5:57pm ET
Not sure I understand this quote from you “But fearing too much alcohol, these vintners would rather pick early and err on the side of "green," convincing themselves this is what they like.”

I enjoy a number of the producers from the “in pursuit of balance crowd” and I have never heard one of them tell me they are trying to achieve a certain alcohol level. They talk about trying to achieve a wine of balance and freshness over heavy and ripe. I don’t think they are “convincing” themselves of anything. You obviously have your preferences and I have mine, but you seem to dismiss that their preference is somehow wrong. I don’t think it’s that black and white. I also don’t think a group wants to “change” all wines to low alcohol. It is no doubt the minority, but a lot of people, myself included, really prefer this more restrained style of wine coming from California these days. While I don’t like the riper, often higher alcohol wines myself, I don’t think they should stop being made either. CA is a big place and plenty of room for multiple styles of wine.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  February 28, 2014 10:03pm ET
Glenn, In Pursuit of Balance was founded to counter the perception that a majority of California Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs were too ripe and too high in alcohol, and to demonstrate that their approach to ripeness could succeed. When I've gone through the whole range of wines presented at their tastings, I found quite a few that tasted green to me but the winemakers thought they had hit it just right. That's what was behind the sentence you quoted.

It's also true that we all have different threshold levels of perception for elements in wine, so it's no surprise if some of us are more sensitive to green flavors while others are more sensitive to alcohol.

It has not escaped my notice that a number of IPOB winemaker members have consciously revised their target level of ripeness gradually toward the riper end of the scale, capture ripe fruit flavors along with all the savory character while striving to make wines with a sense of weightlessness. That fits my idea of balance.

It's certainly a goal of every winemaker I know to make balanced wines. They just have different ideas about what the word means.

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