November 2012

Jack Replies to SF Chronicle: Stomp Out Over-Ripe Grapes

by Jack Stuart on November 10, 2012

A recent story in the San Francisco Chronicle (“Cabernet crusade: Vintner Randy Dunn challenges alcohol levels of Napa’s premier wine,” August 26), struck a chord with me.  In it, Dunn, dean of Howell Mountain winemakers, and UC Davis collaborator Ellena King argued that high alcohol in Cabernet make wines all “taste the same,” and suggested segregating wines by alcohol levels in critical tastings.

Chronicle wine writer Jon Bonné reported that Dunn is attempting to “reverse the upward spiral of alcohol in Cabernet, a trend that he sees as not only destroying the style of wine on which Napa has made its reputation but also neutralizing any sense of place.” We couldn’t agree more.

Alcohol is indeed a culprit in the sameness of clumsy wines, but it’s not the only one. High alcohol is just a symptom of the core source of the problem:  overripe grapes.  When winemakers learned that you could diminish the pyrazines (natural compounds in grape juice) that cause vegetal or herbaceous character in Cabernet by picking at higher Brix, they starting leaving the fruit out there so long that the berries became dehydrated, wrinkled and soft.  That led to rich, concentrated, powerful wines, but at the extreme they tasted like prune juice, were often noticeably sweet, and didn’t develop complexity in the bottle.  Unfortunately for some of us old diehards, many in the press and trade took a liking to that style.  

Juice brought in over 25.5 or 26 Brix will not reliably ferment to dryness, even with all the yeasts and nutrients that are now available.  So winemakers have to add water, which dilutes the sugar but also dilutes other components as well.  And if you bring the grapes in at 28 to 29, as some folks do, even watering back and adding yeast nutrients won’t get the fermenter completely dry.  Nothing will get rid of the cooked, raisiny character of the resulting wine.  Forget about it tasting anything like actual Cabernet Sauvignon, the most exquisite flavor in the wine universe.

Removing alcohol can help with that burning sensation at the back of your palate, but it won’t make raisins taste like properly ripened fruit. De-alking is often called “controversial” and “secretive,” but it really isn’t surreptitious or hush-hush in the industry.  Like filtration, micro-oxygenation, maturation tannin additions, VA removal, and other modern techniques, it can be useful and is widely used.  True, marketing departments don’t broadcast it, but any responsible winemaker would consider using safe and legal means to deliver a better product to his customers.

As for Randy’s and Ellena King’s study and proposal to segregate tasting wines by alcohol levels, it’s helpful, but it doesn’t completely address the issue of organoleptic interactions among wines in professional tastings.  A very alcoholic wine will make the wine that follows it seem thin, but so will a slightly sweet wine.  Sometimes even tasting a darker wine before a lighter one can have a similar effect.  Very tart wines can make the next wine seem flabby or sweet, and vice versa.  Highly tannic wines make it nearly impossible to evaluate the flavor and mouthfeel of other wines, often for the rest of the tasting.  

Since segregating wines according to alcohol content won’t control for interactions involving residual sugar, acidity, color or tannin, perhaps the approach ought to be to repeat tastings of the same wines in a different randomized order each time and combine results.  Is this practical?  Probably not, but any effective technique to reduce interactions is going to require more time than the kind of structured tastings we’re all used to.  Frankly, I’d like to see more judging done in the context of how wine is typically enjoyed: at the table, with food and friendship.

Call us to arrange a tailgate tasting in the olive grove next to Les Ivrettes, and see for yourself.

–Jack Stuart, Winemaker & Partner