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See-saws and sweet spots

By |  February 26 2014

Consider a graphic model often used to explain maturation of grapes. One curve represents diminishing acidity, while two ascending curves represent accumulation of sugar and a construct generally termed "phenolic ripeness." The unexamined presupposition is that these lines will intersect-or come closest to a three-way intersection-at the point when it is time to pick. Whether or not one finds the graphic model convincing, it might seem like common sense-taking a cue from Justice Potter-simply to taste the grapes. (Still, it is amazing not just how reluctant growers have been to discard their refractometers, but that they would consider it a major declaration of independence to chew grapes instead.) But tastes differ, and as recent wrangling among viticulturalists and winemakers over hangtime reveals, one grower’s idea of "perfect phenolic maturation" is another’s idea of "dead fruit." The unexamined common assumption among these disputants is that of a unique, optimum point.

Take two prominent and philosophically sophisticated American wine growers with divergent approaches to capturing both ripeness and "ripeness." In his widely circulated "Fruity Fictions and Terroir Tales," John Wetlaufer (better known as the partner of Helen Turley, midwife to some of California’s most opulent wines) has written: "Perfect ripeness (and we are of the school that says that fruit is either ripe, underripe, or overripe-there are not degrees of ripeness) is at once obvious to taste […] and yet extremely difficult to achieve in practice.

All of us who pay attention to our senses, and to agricultural produce in general, know ripeness when we taste it-a soft, dense, explosion of palate-staining intensity and lingering perfume." Warren Winiarski (whose Stag’s Leap Cabernet lit the fuse of California’s wine explosion in Paris, and who vociferously decries what he considers excessive alcohol and overripeness in today’s wines) writes: "If there is a point at which the berries no longer are on an internal, natural, upward path-but are in a downward freefall- somewhere in between, there should be a peak, a normal, natural time of perfection where one can get the best from the fruit. I remain guided by the idea that every rose has its perfect hour, every day has its noon, every grape its peak of ripeness."

Wetlaufer and Winiarski have divergent picking preferences. To glorify these with "ripe" or "natural" does nothing to resolve their practical disagreement, but merely elevates it to a conceptual level. I might prefer my pears to preserve a bit of crispness.

You may prefer to eat them at a point of softness where the juice runs over your chin. Surely, to ask "which is ripe?" is as foolish- indeed practically the same thing-as to ask "which is right?" Wetlaufer’s "explosion" and the peak of Winiarski’s trajectory are poetically evocative but misleading postulates. Even if humans shared peak pleasurable levels of particular phenolic constituents (a dubious assumption), what reason have we to assume that the many such constituents in a grape will or even can peak together? Riesling Kabinett, Spätlese, and Auslese each reflect different virtues, as do Grüner Veltliner Steinfeder, Federspiel, and Smaragd. There is a continuum of flavor and there are trade-offs, but where is the point of optimal ripeness or balance? Even if one could operationally define maximum phenolic ripeness in terms of vine metabolism, it would have an evolutionary reference point and thus reflect the preferences of birds, not humans.

In the search for balance in finished wines, one finds the same fallacy at work, postulating a point at which acidity and sugar, or a single quantifiable such as alcohol, are said to be "in balance." Regardless of one’s attitude toward the widespread practice of de-alcoholization and customization of California wines, the person most responsible for this revolution, Clark Smith, has, by undermining the popular conception of alcoholic balance, freed us from this fallacy.

Smith demonstrated that for any given taster, when asked to indicate preferences among wines differing solely and incrementally in alcohol, these will nearly always coalesce not around a single preference, but rather around several different "sweet spots" widely divergent in alcohol and perceived as being most pleasurable, expressive, and "in balance." A similar experience can be shared by those-including German vintners and merchants of a generation when sweetening wines with part-fermented must was widely practiced-who have observed the effects of incremental levels of residual sugar on one and the same base wine. One seldom finds a single spot at which a wine can be deemed "in balance," but rather several points at which this is the case. Nor is the progression of perceived sweetness linear. By means of what Smith a quarter-century ago aptly dubbed "masking and synergy," perceived levels of sweetness will vary in skips and jumps. At times, more residual sugar can even be perceived as less sweetness, due to its interaction with myriad other constituents, whether measurable (such as acidity, dry extract, or pH) or not (such as terroir). Seek not a single tipping point-there may be many. The question of balance is still critical to wine-but to answer it, we must first free ourselves of a fallacious picture.

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