Chinese checkers is a board game that can be played by two, three, four, or six people, playing individually or with partners. The objective is to be first to race one’s pieces across the hexagram-shaped gameboard into the “home” section, which is the corner of the star opposite one’s starting corner, using single-step moves or moves which jump over other pieces. Others keep playing to establish 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and last place finishers.

Now what on earth does a board game have to do with wine, or anything remotely associated with wine, except for the fact that in some cases the two might go hand in hand… wine and games that is… Well, nothing really, except for the fact that predicting the style and quality of a wine as a result of the fruit and oenological processes, remains one of the most important and difficult parts of a viticulturist and winemaker’s job and is sometimes more luck than wisdom (This was confirmed by a very interesting sensorial lecture by Professor Heyman of UC Davis a few days ago).

Imagine having a tool in the laboratory which helps you to assess the maturity kinetics of your vineyards and its fruit profile helps you to optimize the picking date according to the desired wine profile and finally, helps you to create more consistent wine profile results, year after year, with multiple vineyards or blocks of the same cultivar.

The technology, called the Dyostem system (Berry Maturity Analyses system), to measure berry skin colour has been developed by Vivelys Society (France) and Montpellier SupAgro (France) a while ago and is currently being assessed commercially in the Northern and Southern Hemisphere. According to Professor Alain Deloire of the University of Stellenbosch, the method uses the evolution of the berry colour by applying optical techniques, as an indicator of berry ripening, which of course relate to the wine’s aromatic profile. In short: The average colour of the berries “predicts” the wine style as a result of the ripeness level of the fruit.

The term “optimal ripeness” is such an important, yet complex term that not even scientists can agree fully on a definition or all the complexities that it entails. Yet, the significance of “optimal ripeness” is reflected not only in the development of technologies like the Dyostem system and formal sensory techniques (BSA or Grape Berry Assessment), but also in the jargon used by winemakers when presenting wine tastings or trying to flog a few bottles to a restaurant.

Winemakers agree to the fact that “optimal ripeness” bares direct relation to the style of the required wine, which in turn is dictated by market or by the objective to produce a wine that reflect the expression of a typical terroir related profile.  The classical indicators of “ripeness level” include sugar level or potential alcohol, natural acids (particularly malic and tartaric) and pH and of course various and diverse methods of spectral analyses to give us some insight into the colour ripeness and tannin or “mouth feel” ripeness. All these parameters strongly relate to the perception of the taste of the wine.

In lectures to students, when asked the question “but when exactly do you decide when to harvest?” of course I cannot give them a straight and simple answer. I do however think back to Christopher Walken’s answer to his daughter’s question “what should I do Dad?” in the movie the “Wedding Crashers”: “The best you can do is to use all information at hand to make the best possible decision.”

Dyostem I have never had the privilege to work with, but when it reaches the point where it does exactly what it was designed for, I am getting myself one of those…or like Orange winemaker Justin Jarrett said “I can walk down the rows of my vineyard and taste fruit and get it right, or hope I get it right… but I guess if I get it wrong, I’ll get it really wrong. This way you have some science to the process of determining picking times based on the flavours you want…”

Bertus Fourie is a winemaker, turned Enology lecturer and creator of the Barista coffee Pinotage.