Yes some, perhaps many (but not most) wines over — what? — like, 14%-14.5% alcohol by volume? — might strike some tasters as “out of balance.” Certainly any “high alcohol” wine is a risk to drink too much of when one has driven to dinner. But then so are wines with less alcohol, or beers, or cocktails. Yesterday Jon Bonné added to the drone of high-alcohol criticism in his posting to the “Thirst” column at SFGate… with the statement:
The high-alcohol drumbeat isn’t new, but it is prompting more of a backlash. Increasingly, a new guard of winemakers is dismissing old saws about “physiological ripeness.” They’re deliberately, even defiantly, picking grapes with less sugar. Ripeness isn’t California’s challenge anymore; now it’s balance. That means farming smarter. (And not simply removing excess alcohol after the fact.)
I have not met Jon Bonné but I have read him for years — IMHO his writing is often smart and to the point. This bit is not. I’m not sure what “new guard of winemakers” he has been talking to, and I’m not sure what “old saws” he is referring to, but picking grapes solely on the basis of “less sugar” — whether deliberately, defiantly, ignorantly or otherwise — without considering physiological ripeness is definitely not likely to result in a better wine.
I wish (as perhaps does Mr. Bonné) that the definition of “physiological ripeness” for wine grapes was simple and concrete. It is neither. In fact physiological ripeness is an ideal, an unrealizable goal: the perfect overlap of the development of many enologically important components of the grape skin, seeds and pulp. When considering whether an individual grape is “ripe” one could consider the sugars, acids, pH and potassium in the pulp or juice, the anthocyanins and tannins in the skin, the tannins in the seeds, and the aromatic compounds present throughout.
During ripening each of these things is changing with time: some are going up, some are going down, some are going up and then down. “Physiological ripeness” is that moment when all of these things are in “perfect balance” — exactly where they must be to yield a wine of complicated and soul-satisfying deliciousness. Except that it never happens.
In most vineyards, most vintages, some part of the equation peaks too early, or too late. In many California vineyards sugar arrives too early, before the other things that make a perfect wine grape reach their optimal concentrations. It takes some seriously smart farming to make sure this doesn’t happen.
Notice so far I’m still dealing with an idealization — a single wine grape. In the real world each grape on a cluster, each cluster on a vine, each vine in the vineyard is pursuing its own course to “physiological ripeness.” Sure they are all going in the same direction at the same time but like a herd of lemmings running to the sea, some get there before the rest. As a winegrower it is my job to slow that herd up, to bunch them together as much as possible, then snatch them off before most of them have a chance to go over the cliff.
Someday I might write a book on what goes in to assessing grape ripeness and what steps I might take to bunch the crop up. I would include all the other factors that go into the decision of when to pick: things like lignification of the rachis, leaf senescence, disease status, insect pressure, weather forecast, and even the mundane logistical things like the availability of labor, trucking, and tank space. But not tonight.
The bottom line is that no winemaker wakes up one morning during harvest and says “uh, duh-oy — I’m going to pick at lower sugar because high-alcohol wines are really icky.”
If tastemakers want to make high-alcohol wines go away they should stop giving them medals and high point scores. Consumers could make them go away if they would just stop buying them. I’m not holding my breath. In the meantime, bashing “the trend toward ever higher alcohols” will continue to be a reliable trope for trade writers to sell a few more column-inches — and to rile up people like me.