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.