The Perfectly Ripe Grape Cluster
What is optimal ripeness and why should we care? Is it necessary for every berry to be perfectly ripe, or might it actually better to have a range of ripeness, not only for complexity but to capture some of the good things about both ends of the spectrum?
The short answer is yes. Uniform ripeness is overrated. Let me explain.
In most cases, there is a range within which grapes are acceptably ripe for making good quality wine. It’s sort of a window of opportunity, bracketed on the lower end by the disappearance of green, herbal, over-acidic or otherwise objectionable flavors, and on the upper end, by raisiny, cooked or otherwise damaged flavors, as well as excessive alcohol levels. Inside this bracket you could say exists style, and where you locate yourself within it determines in large part what kind of winemaker you are. The question of style of course is much larger than ripeness, although in California that is a big part of it. It is, as one of my old friends likes to put it, an n-dimensional hyperspace, wherein a lot of parameters interact—ripeness, extraction, length of time in the cellar, various manipulations natural and unnatural, type of aging vessels, squeaky clean versus “benign neglect,” and so on. Nevertheless, the picking decision—and therefore, the level of ripeness—pretty much sets the course for the wine. So much rides upon getting it right—the flavors that come in from the field, the potential “size” and balance, flavor and chemistry of the wine all hinge on it.
Early in my career I took it for granted that uniform ripening was hugely important. Every berry in every cluster should be as close to “optimally ripe” as possible. Close inspection reveals that in any normal grape cluster, even under perfect conditions, there is a range of ripeness. This is actually a good thing, provided that the range excludes, as mentioned above, problematically non-ideal berries. Widening the criteria a little has helped me make more expressive wines, more nuanced, and more fun to drink. To borrow a phrase popular in the political sphere these days—in diversity there is strength.
This is perhaps one reason that “old school” wines could be so memorable. When they worked, that is, when the variability in ripeness that was more the norm thirty years ago was just right, you got that wonderful tension between freshness and generosity. Something that, in our quest for uniform ripeness, we sometimes lose track of.