Log In / Join Now

Chime In On What's Overripe

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Sep 5, 2008 5:22pm ET

Here’s a topic for everyone: “I'm new to wine collecting,” writes Jeffrey, “and still trying to get my arms around some of these issues. What are examples of big, overripe, fruit forward, etc. ‘faddish’ wines? Is Joseph Phelps Insignia in this category? The Martinelli/Turley (Marcassin) Pinot Noirs?”

Welcome to wine’s hottest button.

Defining ripeness should be a healthy weekend exercise.

For me, the terms big, ripe and fruit-forward define the full physiological ripeness of a grape, irrespective of its variety. Overripe, though, is where wines such as Cabernet, or Pinot, or Zinfandel, reach the raisin, or Port spectrum, of flavors. Or with Chardonnay, when the flavors extend to exotic tropical fruit flavors.

Higher alcohol levels also define ripeness, or overripeness.

Ripeness is really in the taste of the beholder.

Back to Jeffrey’s question: Phelps Insignia is the epitome of the ripe style. It’s big, rich, deep and concentrated, with a good dose of alcohol (and also oak). But it’s also amazingly elegant and refined, with impeccable balance, depth and focused. I don’t consider it overripe.

Occasionally the Martinelli Pinots (and certainly the Martinelli Zinfandels) are a touch overripe, but I don’t find the Helen Turley and John Wetlaufer Marcassin Pinot overblown. The Turley Napa Zinfandels (made by Helen’s brother, Larry) are also superripe, with alcohol levels in the 17 percent range. Yet they too can be balanced in a superripe style.

There are many critics who enjoy this style. But in fairness, riper wine styles are being pursued in many areas of the world, including Australia and Spain, and praised and damned by many. It's important to see what wines other wine critics praise before lumping them together as only liking one style.

I’ve given you a couple of examples of ultraripe wines. Now I'd like to hear from you. What constitutes overripeness to your taste, and what kind of wines fit that description?

Jeffrey Ghi
New York —  September 5, 2008 9:08pm ET
Overripe is when no matter how many times you scrub your tongue with the tooth brush, the purple just won't go away =)
Steven M Ruths M D
Santa Barbara, CA —  September 5, 2008 10:30pm ET
I agree. I think that when red wine flavor profiles veer into the prune/raisin/Port spectrum, then overripeness has been achieved. Sometimes (with zins) this flavor profile along with a bit of RS isn't such a bad thing, as these wines are not usually meant for collecting but rather for immediate decadent enjoyment. As for white wines, I enjoy tropical flavors and tend to only think of flabby wines (which could have been acidulated) as uninteresting.
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  September 6, 2008 1:59am ET
Funny thing, i was just thinking about some of the chardonnays. Martinelli Zio Tony can be a bit much. 1st few sips or even a glass but then it overwhelmed(2004 bottling from 07 notes). To me the Cask cab from Rubicon seems a bit overworked (04 from 07 note). Although I loved the Rubicon. It is true for me that some wines are great 'tasting' wines but then they 'fatigue' the palate after a half glass or so. Not that the above wines were horrible, just that I prefer a bit more subtle style
Alex D Rot
Elkhart, IN —  September 6, 2008 9:11am ET
I agree with what James has mentioned, that a wine can get away with an extreme level of ripeness as long as it is balanced, but that when the sweet fruit and alcohol overwhelm the rest of the wine, I think that that wine can be called "overripe". Whenever I start to get that excessive stewed fruit flavor and start thinking about RS (in a red), that about does it for me.
John Shuey
Carrollton, TX —  September 6, 2008 9:35am ET
An over-ripe wine is one that, when drunk with dinner, overwhelms the food instead of complementing it.And that is what most Cal Zins, Aussie Shirazes, and US West Coast Cabs do most of the time, and why I have stopped buying them.
La Quinta, CA —  September 6, 2008 11:29am ET
Some of the Mollydooker wines can tend to tire out a palate due to over ripeness. Don't get me wrong, I can enjoy a glass or two but that's pretty much it. Foxen Seasmoke vineyard Pinot's can do that too.
Eric P Perramond
Colorado Springs, CO —  September 6, 2008 11:32am ET
James - an interesting question that has no single answer. If you think of wine as a meal ingredient, then I find anything over 15% (red) and 14% (white) ridiculous...as it can overshadow most dishes. If it's by itself, and you want to drink a "candy cocktail," I'm happy to drink a Rosenblum or Turley Zin that would be considered ridiculous as a meal pairing. There are no hard and fast rules - as long as something is balanced and not smelling like a Molotov cocktail out of the glass (or burning the palate from alcohol hotness), bottoms up. I drink both styles happily, but with different purposes in mind, and it just depends on the mood, goal, or preference at the time. Cheers!
Eugene Kim
Houston, TX —  September 6, 2008 12:05pm ET
As James said, ripeness is based on the taste of the beholder. What might be overripe for one may be sheer fruity delight to another. However, when these wines become unbalanced, ie alcohol levels, tannins, there seems to be more of a common agreement in the displeasure of the wine. I think it is important to tune or calibrate your own taste to professional tasters so that you know what to expect when you are trialing or buying a new wine. Laube's definition of ripeness may be very different from Parker, Suckling, or Steiman.
Kevin Harvey
September 6, 2008 12:38pm ET
I think wines are over-ripe when they show pruney or overly sweet, jammy flavors. Also over-ripe wines can exhibit unbalanced alcohol, clenching artificial acidity or oily low acid textures.Jim,Given the very strong and growing consumer demand for fresher, more detailed, balanced and ageworthy wines, do you envision a time when the WS will award similarly high scores to styles that do not emphasize extreme ripeness?
September 6, 2008 12:59pm ET
I believe (in big part to the WS and James) many wineries go for an overripe/high alcohol style of wine. In my view, this makes for very "front heavy" wines that can taste very good at first/ but don't normally age very well or have much complexity. *See the cult Napa 1997 cabs--as the best example. This is not a style I can drink every day. These wines tend to get big press and ratings from the WS but they dont suit a "wine lifestyle" where you would like to pair the wines with your meals. I prefer the old world more balanced style (that you can find in the New World as well) they just don't get the same press in the WS. See the NY Times article from last week for a great list of New World wineries that make old world style wines.
John Wilen
Texas —  September 6, 2008 2:51pm ET
John Poggemeyer
Cleveland, OH —  September 6, 2008 3:27pm ET
Simple explanation: overripe California cabernet is defined as such: Mailing list only, $200+ cost per bottle, minimum 95pt Parker score.

just kidding....
John Osgood
New York, NY —  September 6, 2008 5:32pm ET
Mollydooker must be in the overripe hall of fame.
Jeffrey Ghi
New York —  September 6, 2008 7:54pm ET
Re: John Poggemeyer

I disagree, some of the Harlans I've tried are so fine, balanced and structured that I would NEVER ever consider them overripe. Martinelli on the other hand.
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  September 6, 2008 9:23pm ET
An interesting discussion. I think Jim will agree that some vineyards are capable of pushing the ripeness envelope more than others. Some of the Zinfandel vineyards that Mazzocco uses in Dry Creek, for example, have a natural acidity that helps balance the wines.
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  September 6, 2008 11:58pm ET
Tim hit it on the head - it's about acidity. I wouldn't limit it to natural acidity, since careful adds of tartaric acid to the fermenter can provide the balance that few vineyards ever achieve. Without acid, even minimally ripe wines can taste flabby and over the top.
Gilberto Gastelum
September 7, 2008 12:43am ET
It,s simple overipe wine taste like raisins & alcohol .
Eli Curi
New York —  September 7, 2008 8:26pm ET
An overripe wine is one that explodes from the glass, has lots of fruity aromas, taste delicious during the first few sips, but is exhausting to drink for a whole glass.Everytime I order a Mollydooker (or something similar from Cali), my fellow diners give me a lot of compliments on my choice and I'm super pleased with my selection, but then 20 minutes into our meal, I notice that everyone's glass is still full.
Steven M Ruths M D
Santa Barbara, CA —  September 7, 2008 10:21pm ET
I agree with Brian, as (I think) he meant that it is near-impossible to taste the difference between acidulated wine and wine with natural acidity, which brings sugar and (super)ripe flavors in balance. Also, pH and TA can be corrected by blending in wine (often different cultivars) which differs from the addition of tartaric acid. Eli, there is nothing from Cali similar to Mollydooker. Try them with some sharp cheeses or (dare I say) without food. Can't drink them every night (like Harlan!), but they are a well-executed stereotype of Aussie shiraz. If you want a well balanced syrah, then try Lagier-Meredith! Cheers, Steve
Mr Damian Zaninovich
Bakersfield,Ca —  September 8, 2008 1:22am ET
We can put a man on the moon but we can't recreate a 1947 Cheval Blanc yet the goal is still in sight,we just need a little more cowbell!
Andres Munoz Honiball
costa rica —  September 8, 2008 9:13am ET
i think that as time progresses, and the california wine industry will become mroe experience, the shift from overipeness is going to lead towards elegance and finesse. Many wines specially in the higher cult market already reach this goal. yet many others attempt to create overextracted wines as means or justification for a style that seems common now in the cali wine industry.just like we seem to move away from over oaked and over malo wines justy a decade ago, we will promptly move into more refinement in our wines, leading to less extraction as a means to accomplish finesse and elegance. just like many of the great wines in europe. it has been a work in progress to reach what we now know them for
Jason Fernandez
Boston, MA —  September 8, 2008 11:08am ET
"If you want a well balanced syrah, then try Lagier-Meredith!" I don't even have to drink that wine... I could just sit and smell the glass for hours, great stuff!
Don Noone
September 8, 2008 11:28am ET
Thanks John Wilen for referencing that NYT blogpost. Right off the bat I noticed the picture which appears to be a bottle of Corison. Sure enough, Asimov mentions Corison. I think it is fairly well established that Cathy Corison has resisted the overripe trend. She clearly has the vineyard land to go that way if she so chose. Still, what sort of response does she get from the mainstream wine reviewers? Consistently terrible scores from Laube. I think that is typical of WS - they favor overripe styles in the ratings and try to talk around the accusation - and producers have to be brave or crazy to make wines that are restrained and compliment an array of foods, not just an expense account steak dinner.
Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  September 8, 2008 2:04pm ET
Reading the many blogs,this is what I keep hearing . People talk of palate fatique, enjoying the first couple of sips then the wines overripeness being too much, high rankings for overripe wines. Here is a couple of questions I have. First, Is it possible that the raters, JL,JS, RP, etc. are such marathoners, tasting 50+ wines everyday or morning, that they don't experience or understand the palate fatique the rest of us do with this type of wine? Second, they don't do a half a glass or full glass and swallow. By the time we've had a half glass of the fruit bomb and am pushing the glass away, they have tasted and spit 5 other wines. Some of which may be lean and austere, but not necessarily of the overripe style. The only thing they are seeing is that initial first bounce, which everyone seems to enjoy, then bamm into the spit jar and here is the 95 rating. Third, they taste these wines straight up, food pairing or how it might compliment food is not on the agenda or of concern.
John Wilen
Texas —  September 8, 2008 3:29pm ET
I believe Steven Tanzer was the first to identify a key US consumer insight. He said that a powerful influence driving producers to vinify ever-riper fruit has been the apparent taste preferences of a new generation of wine drinkers, many of whom appear to be once-a-week drinkers who uncork the occasional trophy wine with friends as a sort of urban indoor sporting event as opposed to more traditional imbibers who routinely enjoy wine with their dinner without making a fetish of it. People who view wine as an occasional indulgence are more likely to want their doors blown off than they are to prize subtlety.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  September 8, 2008 4:18pm ET
John, no doubt tastes and styles have changed, but I question whether once-a-weekers would trophy hunt. In the same vein winemakers globally have turned up the volume in their wines to make them stand out from the crowd.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  September 8, 2008 4:37pm ET
Sandy, valid points about professional tasters, who can handle volume (though I don't taste more than 30 a day), wines with food vs. solo, and when most consumers taste (at home, at a restaurant, at night after work), all of which reinforces using ratings and critics as guides not absolutes.
Anthony Clapcich
new york —  September 8, 2008 6:59pm ET
To Damian: Awesome! We all need more cowbell!
Rob Dobson
September 9, 2008 2:41pm ET
A wine is overripe when it no longer reflects its varietal characteristics and vineyard origins.
Jeffrey Matchen
New Jersey —  September 9, 2008 5:02pm ET
Wow, 29 comments so far. And I thought I was asking such a simple question... I can't wait to try some of the wines Eric Asimov recommended to see how the old school wines compare. BTW, I drank a 1996 Insignia this weekend and thought it was great -- balanced, complex, but still plenty of fruit.
Jeffrey Matchen
New Jersey —  September 9, 2008 5:04pm ET
James, (and all) thanks for taking on this issue. I can't remember when I've learned so much.
John B Woodward Iii
Lost Canyon CO —  September 18, 2008 3:44pm ET
To me, ripeness is defined by the clarity and focus of the fruit flavors. When the fruit becomes too plummy, muddled, and certainly pruney or raisiny the fruit loses focus and purity and is overipe. But as this thread demonstrates, there is little consensus on defining ¿overipeness¿. Some seem to equate concentrated, intense fruit flavors with overripeness, though I find many such wines have fresh, pure fruit and would consider them ripe or superipe, but not overripe. While brix/ sugar ripeness in warm climates often correlates with fruit flavor (physiological) ripeness, it doesn¿t necessarily correlate, so defining fruit ripeness by the alcohol content doesn¿t work for me. So when I see in various tasting notes fruit flavors characterized only as ¿overripe¿, without specific descriptors that inform about the purity, clarity, or freshness of the fruit, I am left with no clue what the ripeness level really was, nor what the fruit flavors actually might be.

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.

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