Way back when I first started my blog, I covered the concept of ripeness. What is ripeness and what do different winemakers look at to determine ripeness? That was back in 2010 and I thought it would be good to cover the topic again given the almost 7 years in between. In recent years ripeness has become a very hot topic of discussion. I was in a tasting very recently with one attendee focusing on alcohol primarily and considering high alcohol a fault. I know several other people who look a less than 14% on a red wine and consider it equally negative as the person who considers that too ripe. Personally, I like to focus on flavor ripeness but, particularly in upstate NY, one doesn’t always get to decide if your fruit is ripe when a picking decision is made.
I’ve found myself redefining what “ripe” means. I’ve made quite lovely wines from Brix levels that wouldn’t even be considered for frequent (2-3 times per week) berry sampling in CA. Now more than ever, I am convinced that the key indicators of grape ripeness are less to do with one or two individual components and much more to do with multi-faceted aspects of vine maturity and grape composition. Sugar, acid, tannin, flavor, color; there is no perfect quantity of each of these aspects. The intersection of each component which drives a picking decision in the mind of a winemaker is purely driven by a stylistic focus.
What this means really is that terroir alone can only take fruit so far. You hear many winemakers, including myself, saying that they focus on capturing the terroir of a site. What I have come to understand is that, in reality, what we all mean is that we are capturing the terroir as seen through the lens of our own internal concept of quality and style.
“There is no perfect quantity of each of these aspects. The intersection of each component which drives a picking decision in the mind of a winemaker is purely driven by a stylistic focus.”
So what does this mean? It means that terroir can be enhanced or crippled by the constraints placed upon it by the winemaker making the call. If one’s key focus is sugar ripeness then, as winemakers, we may loose some of the delicacy and elegance that is found a lower Brix levels. If low alcohol is the key driver, then the power and grace of ripe tannins may be sacrificed. If we are waiting for ripe fruit flavors to develop in the grapes, very often we have already lost precursors which would create different complex aromas which could only be unlocked through the fermentation process. What I’m saying is that multiple winemakers can get fruit from the exact same vineyard however the translation of the terroir will be different depending on that individual winemaker’s concept of what the terroir should give them. Each can make equally beautiful wines from a great site but the personality of those wines may be widely different and that is okay.
“What I have come to understand is that, in reality, what we all mean is that we are capturing the terroir as seen through the lens of our own internal concept of quality and style.”
This should not be a new concept but I see and hear so many people being so hooked on a particular style of wine that they are unable to even consider, much less enjoy, a different style that may be contrary to their own visions of what wine should be. However, that is what makes this profession amazingly diverse. That is why winemaking is a craft and that translation of terroir is unique to each winemaker/vineyard pairing.
I believe, we, as winemakers must understand that our own interpretation of the terroir of a particular site is not the only interpretation. Although we may have been or are making beautiful wines from them, this does not mean that our definition of ripe for particular grapes is the only definition of ripe. There is no absolute right and wrong. There are only multiple shades of stylistic definition. That, to my mind, is the most interesting aspect of this profession.
Do you feel terroir is absolute? Is it possible to have only one distinctive style that is the correct one for a specific site? Join the discussion below!