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Oregon Hang Time: From Verbena to Banana to Blackberry in 40 Days

Josh Bergström follows his hanging grapes' flavor from acrid to luscious.

Posted: Sep 16, 2008 11:34am ET

By Josh Bergström

Posted by Josh Bergström

Pinot Noir follows an interesting curve when it is sitting on the vine, ripening. The ultimate goal of hang time is, of course, perfection—which, in my mind, means balanced flavors and structure, as well as purity of fruit. This, of course, is complicated, because each and every winemaker’s personal taste and style is different. What is balanced to one is overblown to another.

But what is hang time, and why is it important? Technically speaking, hang time is the time period that it takes fruit to ripen, from the physiological stages of flowering and fruit set all the way through to harvest. There are industry standards of how long a season might be in each winegrowing zone, and for each varietal, that span anywhere from 80 to 110 days. This again is complicated by what a particular winemaker considers ripeness to be, but let’s keep it simple for now.

Currently in Oregon, the Pinot Noir clusters are colored up. They look dark blue from a distance and dark pink from close up. As a berry’s color becomes darker (a process known as veraison) their sugar levels are usually right around 15-17 degrees Brix. The experience of tasting them is comparable to chewing on a verbena leaf--that is to say, herbal and citrusy. From that point on, though, the grapes will continue to create sugars, the acids will begin to decline, and a wonderful flavor curve will develop.

In Oregon, when I begin to see Brix levels of around 20-21 degrees, the fruit tastes like green bananas. Then the flavors will begin to migrate towards rhubarb, and then into the bright red fruit spectrum, with flavors and aromas of red currant, raspberries and wild strawberries. Are the seeds brown? Has the herbaceous character disappeared from the juice? Are the skins bleeding their colors yet? If so, it may be time to harvest—if you’re looking to make a brighter, more acid-driven wine with lower alcohol levels. Do you have any empty tanks? If not, you need to wait a little longer.

As the fruit continues to ripen, I’ll start to taste flavors of dark fruits that begin with dark cherry and then turn to blackberry, blueberry and sometimes black currant. If you’re aiming for a wine with opulence and a larger personality, this might be the time to harvest, providing all of the other criteria are met.

This period of hang time is important because flavors cannot be created in the winery, and once we decide to harvest fruit, we have established the style of the wine and its flavor profile for the year. Juice can be altered to fix deficiencies or over-abundances of sugar or acid, but character and purity of flavor is the job of Mother Nature, and the watchful eye and palate of the winemaker and vineyard manager. The longer and more complicated a season, the better a wine might be. But the winemaker will make the ultimate decision on when to pick and how to begin to craft his or her wines in the field.

Kirk R Grant
Ellsworth, ME —  September 16, 2008 8:44pm ET
Josh, I was lucky enough to be counted a part of your case club for the past year. In the final year of my schooling the costs of these amazing, world-class wines became too much to bear on a lowly college student check book. I can't tell you how much I look forward to the end of my education and my financial re-stabilization to the point that I can re-join your case club membership. It's great to have another source here from someone who I not only know & respect...but who's wines hold a special spot in my heart and cellar. Thank you for all you do...
Thomas Bougetz
San Francisco/Portland —  September 17, 2008 12:41am ET
Josh,I am interested in how the 2008 harvest is going. I was up in the Willamette Valley twice this summer checking on vineyards we source fruit from and it looked like you were 2 to 4 weeks behind. How has the summer progressed? Is the fruit progressing full to maturity?
Doug Eaton
Phoenix, AZ —  September 17, 2008 7:24pm ET
This is the most straight forward and easy to understand explanation of grape development through harvest I've ever read. Thanks for bring this down to earth! PS. I enjoyed your 2005 Dundee Hills for my 40th birthday, followed by a 2003 Quilceda Creek and 2004 Merus. You were in good company that night and delivered!
Josh Bergstrom
Portland, Oregon —  September 17, 2008 10:46pm ET
Thomas,We started out very much behind this year with a cold winter and a long spring with rains and clouds until late June. Now with the past three weeks in the 80's and sunny with East winds, I think that we are well-poised for October...but then again...who knows what October will bring. Doug: thanks for your notes: I have always been a huge fan of Quilceda Creek and I am glad you put our wines together in the same dinner.Josh
Frank Ostini
Buellton, CA —  September 21, 2008 9:50am ET
Josh, what a great explanation of just one aspect of a winemaker's decision making process, and the complexities of timing and logistics added in. As you state so clearly, it is not just about "ripeness," it is about "rightness" which in my winemaking world has just as much to do with balance and clarity, as well as ripeness. I too, believe that the biggest decision in determining wine style is the timing of picking, and you express that so well. Best of luck to you and all my friends in OR. I hope to see you at IPNC again.

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