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Benign Intervention, Part 2

By |  December 9 2011

Untruth and oversimplification gush from tasting notes and wine commentaries, as well as from the mouths of people you meet at public tasting events. Out of this comes the sort of drivel at which the misinformed public excels, fueling misunderstanding about the changing styles of fine wine. What follows here is the second part of my attempt to look more sympathetically at four of the areas in which winemakers can intervene-and often must intervene -to turn a good wine into a great wine.

3. Concentration and extraction

People regularly confuse these two, which is hardly surprising, given the similar range of sensations aroused by today’s high-alcohol, high-tannin wines. But such confusion makes for considerable inaccuracies when describing the character of wines, along with errors in judgment that only serve to mislead the public. The very word "concentration" has negative connotations that foster a jaundiced view of methods with clumsy names like "reverse osmosis" or "cryoextraction." Cue squawks of indignation from credulous consumers and the systematic demonizing of winemakers who employ such techniques.

But this stuff is as old as the hills, and nobody objected in the days when "concentration" was termed saigner, another word with unpleasant connotations. It means "to bleed," wine parlance for bleeding off the free-run juice before fermentation to produce a more concentrated wine in relatively dilute or high-yielding vintages. The methods used today give the same result, but they do so with more precision. So, why all the hoo-ha?

In any case, a good many high-alcohol wines are naturally that way- concentrated and richly tannic like the super-sweet fruit that went into them. Some may well be too heavy to be refreshing, but that has nothing to do with the winemaker. Such wines are said to be "extracted," never mind how they were actually vinified.

Today’s winemakers have learned to distinguish between fine tannins (in the grape skins) and coarse tannins (in the pips). The quality and quantity of tannins essentially depend on the duration and method of fermentation. The only way to tell whether a wine is overextracted is by examining the tannins-by paying special attention to the finish, not just going by first impressions, as people usually do.

4. Ripe or overripe grapes?

This is the most hotly debated topic in specialist wine circles today, and it will remain so for a long time to come. Conventional wisdom on ripeness has been turned on its head by the arrival of New World wines from naturally sunny vineyards, plus climate change in Old World vineyards and the emergence of a new winemaking concept dubbed physiological, or phenolic, ripeness. Everyone agrees that only ripe grapes can produce good wine, but what exactly are ripe grapes?

Generations of European wine growers preferred acidic grapes-probably because that was all they could grow.

The wines produced from these grapes were slow to age and only drank well once all their rough edges had been knocked off. The tendency today is to pick grapes when the acid content has fallen as much as possible, aiming for supple, flatteur wines-with lots of youthful promise but sometimes flabby and too quick to age. To assist wine growers, enologists have defined different stages of maturity. There is commercial ripeness-the threshold for making decent wine. There is ecological ripeness-the point at which grape seeds are mature enough to germinate and reproduce. And there is phenolic ripeness, said to occur when the skin, pulp, and seeds reach maturity. This is regarded by some as the only degree of ripeness that can produce a really harmonious wine.

Beyond that stage, the grape goes from ripe to overripe, though how critics define this really depends on personal taste. Their aesthetic sensibilities aside, it is probably reasonable to define overripeness as the point when the dark-berry flavors, like blackberries and blueberries, are transformed to flavors of dark chocolate-a flaw that tends to reduce the distinction between wines, regardless of variety or terroir.

But if we accept that definition, then we must stop using the term overripeness to disparage the cooked, jammy character of so many modern wines, which is not at all the fault of overripeness. Rather, it is due to high sugar concentrations in grapes overly exposed to sunlight (brought about by the absurd habit of removing too many leaves). A ripeness that is solely the product of leaf photosynthesis under natural conditions very rarely results in this type of flavor-or at least, not in Europe.

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