IPOB Panel on Ripeness: Considering the question of ripeness
The admirable Jamie Goode flew in from Britain to moderate a panel at In Pursuit of Balance this year. In participating he was able too to select the panel topic. With his wealth of knowledge and experience in wine, bringing him to the event proved a smart addition. He selected the topic of Ripeness for discussion, and immediately broadened perspective on the issue. While conversations around ripeness levels in the U.S., and especially California wine, have tended to quickly steer into discussion of alcohol levels, Goode immediately placed the question of ripeness within a broader context.
In explaining what led him to select the subject, Goode said, “I think ripeness is one of the most important factors in terroir.” The insight behind this statement came in him discussing his views of terroir. “There is no single interpretation of terroir. We can have several different intelligent interpretations of a site. The question is if this [particular wine] is an intelligent interpretation of the site.” He then went on to compare the idea of interpreting terroir to a conductor directing an orchestra’s performance of a composition.
I appreciate the insight offered by Goode here as it brings the appropriate complexity to an idea — terroir, or site expression in wine — that is often treated overly simplistically. To belabor the point behind Goode’s comments, the composer has written a piece, but with the music merely noted on paper, the conductor must interpret the best presentation of those notations. There are multiple possible ways to make such an interpretation. It is impossible to decide which is the best interpretation without having first assumed a collection of values that allow one to judge the success or failure of the performance.
Similarly in wine, when discussing ripeness levels, there is a range of potential picking decisions that could be made that fall after overtly green fruit and before the onset of dehydration. How one determines the point of optimal ripeness depends on what kind of wine a person wants to enjoy, that is, what kind of wine they value.
In the ways we talk about wine, it can be easy to insert judgments of optimal ripeness as if it simply is true that a certain style of wine is the best style. Goode’s point that there are multiple intelligent interpretations gets at the point that such judgments are not simply true, they are a matter of preference. It’s a matter of what we want to drink, not of what it’s right to drink. Still, his point retains the importance of parameters as well. That is, the implication behind Goode’s statement that the question is whether this is an intelligent interpretation of site retains the important point that a winemaker can easily go too far and lose site expression in their wine as a result. Some wines just needs grapes, they don’t care for where those grapes came from.
To give example to how a wine can go to far, Goode discussed the role of alcohol in relation to esters. “Certain levels of alcohol masks the aromatic expression of the wine. Alcohol masks the esters.” He then went on to compare such a phenomenon to drinking whiskey. Some whiskey lovers add a bit of water first because doing so changes the alcohol proportions slightly, and in lowering the overall alcohol level the whiskey shows a different aromatic effect. He also explained that studies have been done changing the alcohol levels on the same wine. The study showed that at different alcohol levels the same wine showed distinctly different flavor and aroma.
Ultimately, he stated that wine experience depends upon a synergy of elements — mouthfeel, flavor, alcohol, acidity — and no one factor is adequate to summing up our expectations with wine. In looking at ripeness, Goode selected a kind of galvanizing rod for other aspects to discuss in wine.
The Wines and Winemakers for Discussion
Justin Willett of Tyler Winery presented two 2011 Pinot Noirs from Santa Barbara County with the goal of showcasing the distinctness between two appellations of the region, as well as to show what a cool vintage in California looks like. Both sites offered older vines from own rooted plantings.
His Sanford & Benedict Pinot, planted in 1971, offered the intense juiciness and core of strength signature of the Sta Rita Hills with light fruit spice and pepper integrated through raspberry bramble and fruit. The Bien Nacido Pinot, planted in 1973, showed restraint with still ample juiciness compared to the Sta Rita Hills, giving the focus on fruit known to the Santa Maria Valley. The wine offered raspberry and strawberry with hints of rhubarb and integrated fruit spice.
In discussing how he makes his picking decision, Willett explained that he is definitely looking at the juice, rather than just raw fruit. As he points out, in Santa Barbara County the focus is more often on letting the acidity soften, as it is naturally so high through that area, rather than looking more singularly at sugar levels.
Josh Jensen of Calera in Mt Harlan brought two 2013 barrel samples from the same vineyard picked at different times, as well as his intensely vibrant Versace jeans. (His pants were the ripest wine of the tasting.) As he explained, he likes to dip his toe in at harvest and pick some fruit earlier than he expects to pick in general just to see how its developed. With this in mind, he offered a barrel selection from his 2013 first pick, clarifying that he felt it showed flavors from jumping the gun too early.
The first sample, picked at 22.9 brix, had a nice acid to tannin balance and lots of length showing through flavors of strawberry and crushed green strawberry and strawberry leaf. The overt green notes Jensen felt showcased the idea of picking too early, though he also pointed out that in time such flavors do actually fade (though he implied this would happen over decades).
The second sample, picked at 24.2 brix, gave a strawberry perfume with herbal, red currant touches through the palate. When asked which the attendees preferred, the room overwhelmingly voted in favor of the second, with people also commenting the second wine seemed more complete.
In discussing his views on alcohol and age-ability in wine, Jensen emphasized that the question is still a work in progress. His belief is that higher alcohol levels likely do inhibit age-ability in wine. In considering how he determines picking times he admits they do look at the numbers but the decision is largely based in the flavors of the fruit.
Katy Wilson of La Rue brought two different vintages of Pinot from the Rice-Spivak Vineyard on the Sonoma Coast in order to showcase vintage contrast, with the 2010 being a markedly cold year for the region, and 2012 comparatively more normal.
The 2012 Pinot offered peach perfume, with a raspberry-peach and peach skin palate moved through with red cherry and strawberry accents. There was a pleasant acid-tannin balance, and nice length. The 2010 carried a more red-pink focus with strawberry-cherry floral nose followed by a strawberry-cherry mouth with kirsch accents and a touch more pepper. The 2010 offered a stronger core of tension, a ton of juiciness and length.
In explaining her picking decisions, Wilson explained she is not picking based on ripeness and numbers as much as considering each vineyard in relation to the particular vintage and location. She states that she’s turned out to make different decisions each year but one that responds to the fruit showing in that year. For Wilson, the flavor development of the fruit turns out to be an important guide. She says she is looking to pick somewhere between strawberry and cherry in the flavor development of the grapes, but then she jokes that the most important part is getting on your grower’s picking calendar.
Wells Guthrie of Copain Wines offered two differing vintages of Pinot from the Kiser en Bas Vineyard in Anderson Valley. The 2010 gave raspberry and evergreen aromatics leading into a perfumed palate with dark edges and light fruit aspects of cherry and raspberry. Though none of the wines on the panel were overtly fruity, the Copain wines proved the most enigmatic of the selections also giving a bit more tannin, while still in good balance to acidity, than the other wines.
The 2007 Pinot showed a light cigarbox and cedar aromatic followed by good tension with dark edges and rubbed raspberry oil leaf with strawberry and raspberry backnotes on the palate moved through a long juicy finish.
Guthrie explained that when picking he likes to think of the grapes as fruit you’d be happy to eat. If you’re trying to pick too early you don’t want to eat the fruit — it’s too pert and firm — but at the moment of ripeness the grapes become something you want to bring home and eat. Past that point and the fruit has become shrunken.
Thank you to Jamie Goode, Jordan Mackay, Josh Jensen, Wells Guthrie, Katy Wilson, and Justin Willett.
Thank you to Jasmine Hirsch and Raj Parr.
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