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August 17, 2015updated 02 Nov 2022 10:29am

The typicity of ripeness

If there’s one single issue that should be dominating discussion of wine today, it’s what we mean by ripeness. The connection between harvest and wine has made a dramatic transition since the last century, with the driving force switching from the need (sometimes desperate) to reach ripeness, to the need to control it before overripeness turns wine into jam. Like the blind man with the elephant, everyone has a partial view of it-there’s discussion about the high alcohol levels resulting from increased ripeness, the need for phenolic ripeness and ways to assess ripeness of tannins, increased levels of residual sugar in some white wines, problems of decreased acidity in some wines-but we really need to think more deeply about how and why ripeness has become an obsession and what this is doing to wine styles. What is the typicity of ripeness and does it trump the typicity of cépage or origin?

The move to greater ripeness is often attributed to climate change (coupled with the plantings of vineyards for making fine wine, especially in the New World, in warmer areas), but I think of climate change not so much as a force in itself and more as an enabler allowing producers the freedom to wait for grapes to get to greater ripeness before they are forced to pick by extraneous circumstances such as adverse weather. This has not intrinsically been a problem to date in the cooler, more marginal areas of Europe, where grapes planted at their northern limits have traditionally given only three or so good vintages per decade; now most vintages are good, and there are only three or fewer poor vintages per decade.

The change is as dramatic as anywhere in the Loire, where Muscadet achieves a level of unhabitual ripeness, Chenin Blanc has abandoned wet wool in favor of a more nutty, savory spectrum, and Sauvignon Blanc has lost grassiness without going to the strange extremes of passion fruit. Cabernet Franc can finally achieve ripeness in Anjou or Touraine, and some red Sancerres have a level of ripeness in Pinot Noir that might rival the satellite areas around Beaune. The benefits have been a bit muddier in Alsace, where a tendency to allow residual sugar in wines that used to be dry causes some confusion. Perhaps extra ripeness is a long-term threat in Champagne, where the base wine needs to have low alcohol and high acidity, but the ability to balance the acidity by changing the dosage has so far pretty much hidden any problems. Producers may be looking wistfully at England in view of France’s hostility to wine and President Hollande’s train wreck of an economy, but reports that it may be necessary to move Champagne to the south of England are exaggerated, if not overexcited.

Perhaps because one has so much more a fixed view of the character of classic wine regions, the tyranny of ripeness is more problematic in Burgundy and Bordeaux. At a recent tasting of the St-Emilion grands crus classés from 2009 and 2010, alcohol levels ranged from 14% to 15.5%. How can this be squared with the traditional freshness of Bordeaux, even on the Right Bank? “The alcohol is balanced” is the winemaker’s usual answer, but this is simply not an adequate response. Yes, it may be balanced, but that balance is quite different from the balance that existed when the wine had 12.5% alcohol. The extra extract needed for balance may, in fact, be what makes the wine fatiguing to drink. And the difference is in reality even greater than would be indicated solely by the level of alcohol alone, since those wines of the 20th century at 12.5% alcohol probably had 1-2% of the alcohol from chaptalization. So the real change is from 11% natural alcohol to 15% alcohol. Come on now: There is no way on earth the wine can fit into the same flavor spectrum.

I should admit to a prejudice here. I like my claret at the point at which herbaceousness just turns to fruitiness, giving that delicious classic balance. For me, the grapes are ripe as soon as they have lost herbaceousness. I suspect that most winemakers today-in Bordeaux, as well as Napa- would sniff at this criterion and look for much higher ripeness, even if they stop short of the super-maturity sought by Helen Turley and other winemakers of her persuasion. So I remain to be convinced by the argument that you improve flavor variety and complexity by going that extra step, and I’m not convinced you have to have alcohol over 14% to achieve ripeness. It all depends what you mean by ripeness.

Burgundies are getting richer also, and while there is no denying that the wines are technically better than ever before, is this at the expense of wider flavor variety? In 1763, the Abbé Tainturier of Clos Vougeot explained the advantages of blending from their various terroirs: “We need [grapes that are] cooked, roasted, and green; even this last is necessary; it improves in the cuve by fermenting with the others; it is this that brings liveliness to the wine.” Has the need for flavor variety in creating complexity been forgotten today in the stampede to harvest grapes at riper and riper levels? The objective now seems to be to get all the grapes as close as possible to the exact same degree of ripeness. But isn’t this exactly the opposite of the criteria applied elsewhere in winemaking: In Bordeaux, for example, a monovarietal Cabernet Sauvignon would be regarded as lacking in complexity; it’s the assemblage of different varieties that makes the typicity. (And yes, just for the avoidance of doubt, I am indeed implying that I have reservations about wines that are 100 percent Merlot on the Right Bank.) In almost all AOPs in the Languedoc, appellation rules require a blend to stop the monotony of flavor from a monovarietal wine. The only place you can really get away with a single-variety wine is a cooler climate, like Burgundy, where it’s the very fact of failing to achieve uniform ripeness that creates complexity. But if Burgundy is going to move to super-ripeness, is it abandoning one of the very keys of its former success?

Ripeness trumping variety?

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When the New World started to compete with Europe, there was great difficulty in dialing down to European ripeness levels. Take Napa versus Bordeaux. The difference was captured by Robert Parker in The Wine Advocate: “The better Bordeaux are elegant, delicate wines that possess incredible subtlety and complexity, whereas the best California Cabernets are massive, powerful, assertive wines often bordering on coarseness.” But 20 or 30 years on, the new consumer has adjusted to the concept of varietal wines, which carried with it a narrowing of flavor profile in the direction of bursting primary fruits. Going for a richer style, Bordeaux began to emulate Napa, with climate change as the unseen elephant in the room. The convergence of styles is aided by-indeed, is completely dependent on-the move to a greater level of ripeness. In many ways, the lushness of Napa Cabernets (excepting one or two recent years when a weather reversal has created problems) actually more resembles the Merlot-dominated wines of Bordeaux’s Right Bank, which makes me wonder whether ripeness is trumping variety. Do you reach a certain level of superripeness at which the criterion for phenolic ripeness creates a certain sameness that subsumes the differences between varieties that had been evident at lower ripeness levels?

As I pointed out in a previous article when I argued that terroir is a phenomenon of cooler climates and is not easily to be seen in the varieties grown in hot climates (“Does the Answer Lie in the Soil?” WFW 41, pp.67-69), wine has more and more flavor but it tends to be the same flavor in all wines picked to criteria of super-ripeness: intense black fruits going in the direction of jam. And even if this is interesting in itself when young, it clashes with food and is likely to leave nothing but the grin of the alcohol as it ages. Doesn’t delicacy, which used to be the prize feature of Burgundy and Bordeaux as they aged, require a certain lightening of the intensity in order to let subtlety and complexity show through? How many wines of the present decade will still be good in another two decades?

Saving grace

Ripeness is more a current issue for red wine than white. The tannic structure of red wine can absorb a certain amount of alcohol and counterpoise the richness of the fruits, but for most white wines, freshness is an important feature that is easily lost with high ripeness. To date, the warming trend has been more beneficial than damaging for the white wines of cool climates; perhaps this is because white-wine producers don’t need to worry about deep extraction for color, and phenolic extraction isn’t the same mantra. In warmer climates, white wines are avowedly more difficult-most Languedoc whites, for example, have a certain sameness in an aromatic, phenolic, quality that overrides the fruits. Is there any white variety that is able to break through to show typicity? Curiously, the closest reach to this that I have experienced is with wines from Languedoc dominated by Chenin Blanc, which show a distinct waxy character somewhat resembling Semillon. Of course, they are not allowed in any of the appellations, but that’s another story.

It’s ironic that terroir may have started out as a recognition of ripeness but that now ripeness is all but destroying terroir (and perhaps varietal typicity also). Burgundy’s amazingly detailed mapping of villages, premiers crus, and grands crus represents foremost a hierarchy of ripeness; in a period when this was almost a marginal area for wine production, the top vineyards were those that ripened reliably every year-hence the distinction between middle, top, and bottom of the famous slope of the Côte d’Or. On the Left Bank of Bordeaux, although terroirs are not directly classified, the best terroirs are regarded as those that ripen Cabernet Sauvignon the most reliably; these are the warmest spots on much vaunted gravel mounds. Climate change could alter all this if it reaches the stage that the locations best suited for the traditional varieties under the marginal conditions of the past produce overripe grapes in the hot future.

All of this depends, of course, on how you define ripeness. The driving force for the convergence of style between Old World and New World is the transition from Brix to phenolic ripeness. In the days when Bordeaux was “delicate” and California was “assertive,” everything was harvested with the objective of reaching around 12.5% alcohol. Differences in latitude (as reflected in sun exposure), temperature (especially diurnal variation), and water supply (wet and humid versus dry) mean that if harvest is driven by phenolic ripeness, Napa comes out one percent or perhaps a bit more ahead in alcohol. But I’m not persuaded it’s quite so simple as that, because of the lack of precision in defining phenolic ripeness. Producers’ definitions sound similarly vague everywhere, but a historic difference between European and American palates may well be responsible in part for that extra sense of richness in California wine. But whatever the difference in exact definition, my main complaint is the general focus on getting all the berries to the exact same degree of phenolic ripeness. Indeed, it may be the practical difficulty of doing this that is the sole saving grace preventing wine from slipping into boring homogeneity. Suppose, for example, that you could clone a single berry so that it provided the whole crop. Would wine made from absolutely identical berries have the variety that we expect in great wine? I rest my case.

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