Of all the issues at the heart of fine wine, perhaps one represents the crucial battleground: ripeness. To make good wine, ripe grapes are a prerequisite. But what exactly is ripeness? How is it defined? And when is ripe too ripe? The most controversial issue in wine is the shift toward riper red wines, made from grapes picked later, with a sweeter fruit profile and more alcohol. Bolstered by the lavish use of expensive new oak, these are in the so-called “international style.” They are dark, concentrated, and seductive, but they are a world apart from the classic European models that have for so long formed the bedrock of the trade in fine wine.

Even some of the classic wines have changed, becoming denser, riper, and more alcoholic through later picking, lower yields, more ruthless selection, and the use of increasing proportions of new oak. Is this just a style preference on the part of consumers? In this case, what right have we to complain? Or is there a deeper problem here, with a convergence of flavor that sees nuance and sense of place in wine lost? There are a limited number of privileged terroirs in the world capable of making nuanced, elegant, ageworthy red wines, and if these are being used to make big international reds, then something precious is being lost. This is why the topic is so controversial.

These wines are being made because this is what the critics like, we are told. But there’s a vocal reaction against these riper, denser wines, with a growing momentum to see some of these excesses curtailed, chiefly through picking much earlier. But to see this issue as a simple binary “right/wrong” or “them/us” scenario is to misread the situation and to prolong the divide. As with so many issues in the world of wine, a more intelligent, nuanced reading is needed, holding in tension seemingly conflicting “truths.” In this three-part series, I will try to explore the issues surrounding ripeness in wine, which is one of the most interesting and thought-provoking of all the discussions in fine-wine circles.

It used to be easy: Ripeness is sugar accumulation

In the old days it was quite easy. For fine wines, it was universally acknowledged that in the classic European wine regions, the best wines were made where grape varieties were grown close to the margins of where they could successfully achieve ripeness. They also tended to be grown in regions where harvest took place perilously close to the onset of autumn rains. Wait too long in search of more ripeness, and the rain could ruin a harvest or, at least, reduce quality. Higher yields were problematic because they delayed ripening and thus increased risk. So, the challenge for wine growers was to get the waiting game right: to get the grapes as ripe as possible and pick them before the weather turned. A good vintage was one that allowed the growers to pick when they felt the grapes were ready, rather than when they felt they had to. The only measure needed to assess ripeness was the refractometer; once the sugars, indicating potential alcohols, were high enough, then it was time to pick. Growers were paid according to the sugar content of the grapes, and this was used as a universal proxy of quality.

Sugar content in wine grapes is measured using three scales, depending where you come from. There are Brix, Baumé, and Oechsle, which are alternatively used depending on the country. These work on the principle that 90 percent of the solids in grape juice are sugars, and measuring the density of the must (known as the “specific gravity”) gives a good indication of how much sugar is present and, therefore, the potential alcohol. One degree of Brix equals 10g/l of sugar, and 1.8° Brix is equivalent to 1% ABV in the finished wine. One degree of Baumé is roughly equal to 1% ABV, and this is in turn equal to 7° Oechsle. So, as an example, a level of 12% ABV will result from grapes picked at 21.3° Brix (11.9° Baumé, 89° Oechsle), and 15% ABV will result from grapes picked at 26° Brix (14.4° Baumé, 110° Oechsle). Related to sugar accumulation is the loss of acidity that occurs during the ripening process. Acidity is measured in two ways, which don’t correlate exactly. There’s TA, or titratable acidity; for red wines, you’d be aiming at levels of 6–8g/l, though it depends on the style. And there’s pH, which measures the hydrogen ions present in the solution; the ideal range for red wines would be 3.4–3.7 in the finished wine, which is slightly lower high than in the must because of the loss of acidity through the malolactic fermentation. In warm climates, acidity is routinely corrected through the addition of tartaric acid, but this can have an impact on flavor, because it can take quite a bit of tartaric acid to shift the pH into a comfortable range. Wines with high pH can taste quite lush and smooth, but there is a greater risk of microbial spoilage if the pH is higher. The spoilage yeast Brettanomyces, in particular, thrives at higher pH.

Along came physiological/phenolic ripeness

Sugar levels as an indicator of ripeness worked quite well, but toward the end of the past century, wine growers began to speak of another type of ripeness. This is alternatively dubbed physiological or phenolic ripeness and sometimes even psychological ripeness by those unconvinced by the concept. But perhaps the simplest term is flavor ripeness, and it refers to the speed at which compounds other than the sugars develop in the grapes. These include the tannins and anthocyanins (in red grapes) and also flavor precursors that will later be transformed into flavor and aroma compounds by the action of yeasts during fermentation. The ripening process also changes the nature of the grape skins so that they give up their colors and flavors more easily during fermentation. Physiological ripeness is currently without a tight scientific definition.

Let’s take a step back and look at the ripening process from the perspective of the grapevine. In their native environment, grapevines are woodland climbers. They grow on trees, and where there are breaks in the canopy, the sunlight hits the canes and signals to the yet-to-develop tendril structures hidden in the buds that they are to become flower clusters instead. The following season, the flower clusters develop and produce grapes where they will be visible to birds for dispersion. We mustn’t forget—grapes are for the birds. Originally, all grapes would have been dark-skinned for visibility reasons; white grapes arose later through genetic mutation once the grapevine was already being cultivated. But it’s important that grapes aren’t visible too early, and for this reason they don’t gain color and palatability until the seeds are ripe enough to be dispersed.

Ripening is actually a two-stage process in grapes. After flowering, the green berries grow, and then they stop. After a pause, they begin again, embarking on the process known as veraison. The berries change color (from green to red/black or yellow), they start to swell, the skins begin to soften, and various chemical changes take place. The first is the accumulation of sugar, which makes them a valuable energy resource for the birds. Then they begin to lose the unpalatable anti-feedants that stop them being eaten early. They lose the green-tasting methoxypyrazines, they lose some of the searing acidity, and the tannins move from being excessively bitter and astringent to being much less aversive. Putting it simply, unripeness is a fruit’s way of saying I’m not ready, and with ripening comes improvement in flavor.

Back to wine. Wine growers working in warmer climates began to find that using sugar levels as the deciding factor in picking decisions wasn’t working so well for them. In hotter conditions, it is possible for sugar levels to rise in advance of flavor ripeness, which can lag behind. The concept of physiological ripeness became a topic of intense interest. The holy grail was a site where the curves of flavor and sugar ripeness intersected at harvest time yielding grapes that tasted fully ripe, with good natural acidity and a potential alcohol of less than 14. But it was recognized that this wasn’t always the case, and so the clear choice of many was to pick on flavor ripeness and then make any necessary corrections in the winery, such as adding tartaric acid and, in some cases, to use alcohol-reduction technology. Winemakers went out into the vineyards, ditched their refractometers, and instead began tasting grapes, because no suitable technology existed for objectively measuring physiological ripeness. As red grapes ripen, the taste goes from vegetal, to herbaceous, to green apple/citrus peel, to red fruits, to black fruits, and then to jam. The berries soften, and then seeds change from bright green to brown. This harvesting by taste also coincides with a change in taste preferences on the part of many consumers, one that was championed by leading critics. It’s hard to know which came first—the change in consumer preference or the critical push behind the riper wines. The latter could have tracked the former, rather than driving it, but this happy collusion of drinker and critic seemed to encourage winemakers to harvest later, producing wines with a sweet fruit profile and greater early drinkability.

This concept of picking by taste rather than analysis, and above all else waiting for the flavors to develop, even affected the style of wines made in Bordeaux. Classic Bordeaux shows a subtle greenness that’s a hallmark of the Cabernet family grapes, but of late winemakers have been terrified by even the slightest bit of green flavor. Cheap Bordeaux is often underripe and decidedly green to a fault, but this doesn’t mean that because some extra ripeness is beneficial, this benefit continues the longer the grapes are left to hang. And just because in the past the best vintages have been the warmest, this doesn’t mean that the warmer the better, given the rise in average temperatures over recent decades. Because of this change in approach, where the vintage allows it, there is no doubt that modern Bordeaux is a very different beast to classic Bordeaux of years gone by. Is it better? There are certainly fewer bad vintages these days, but one question is whether these more modern, riper wines will age as well as their predecessors. Many are convinced that modern Bordeaux are better wines. “Deciding harvest time is important,” says Alfred Tesseron of Pontet-Canet, a property whose critical reputation has soared in recent years. “We used to decide by analyses. Now we work only by taste. A man who helped me a lot is Michel Rolland. He helped me find out when the perfect maturity is—tasting the skins, cracking the pips, and looking at the health of the vineyard. At Pontet-Canet, he bought us that special timing of when to pick at the perfect time. You have to be able to wait—and you have to be organized to wait.”

Another proponent of later picking in Bordeaux is François Mitjavile, the owner of Roc des Cambes and Tertre Roteboeuf. He refers to the concept of “degradation” in grapes that occurs when they are left hanging on the vine for a long time. A bit of this is, apparently, a good thing; he likes to harvest his grapes late, to the point that they are beginning to degrade a little. “We confuse security with quality,” he says. “Quality is not security; quality comes from working in a more dangerous manner. The greatest wines in Bordeaux have low acidity. Acidity is marvelous for Champagne, which has no structure. When you go south, you work with different wines; you need a low acidity, or you get a violent grip on the structure. A great wine has to have low acidity to be voluptuous, and to have an aromatic dynamic to make it alive. There are so many paradoxes in making something beautiful. It has to be slightly degraded, yet fresh. Low acidity, yet aromatic aliveness.” François is not dogmatic about pH, but his pH levels range from 3.75 to 3.9, which is quite high. He points out that Cheval Blanc 1947, a very famous wine, had a pH of 3.9, but he adds that this is effectively a Pomerol terroir, and you can work with slightly higher pH in Pomerol. Such a pH in a finished wine would be unheard of in the New World and would have winemakers rushing for their sacks of tartaric acid.

Ripeness and alcohol

One of the consequences of working with grapes picked later for flavor ripeness is the increase in alcohol levels that follows. Although a lot of fuss has been made of the use of alcoholreduction technology by means of reverse osmosis or spinning cones, these techniques are not all that common for the sorts of wines we are interested in here. Alcohol levels have been rising for a number of decades, though the figures don’t tell us specifically about the situation with fine wines. The Australian Wine Research Institute published data from its extensive analyses showing average alcohols across all Australian wines sampled, rising from 12.4% to 14.2% over the 20 years from 1984 to 2004. And how many of us have had lovely aged Aussie wines from the 1980s and early 1990s with alcohol levels at 13% or below? Julian Alston and colleagues have studied the global rise in alcohol levels. Because label information isn’t accurate, they used a data set from Ontario’s Liquor Control Board. The LCBO, a monopoly responsible for the sale of all wines in retail shops in the province, tests the actual alcohol level of all wines they sell. It noted the discrepancy on declared levels (most wines underreport, but within the legal margins), and also the rise over time—from 12.7% average in 1992, to 13.8% in 2009.

It is not unusual to find alcohol levels in excess of 14.5% in fine wines from across the world—even Bordeaux in riper years—and relatively rare to find top red wines with alcohols below 13.5%. This is quite a change over just a few decades, and the situation could be worse than this seems, because of the routine underreporting of alcohol levels by wineries. California allows wineries 1.5% latitude in deviation from label alcohol levels below 14% and 1% latitude above; Australia allows 1.5% across the board; and the European Union allows 0.5%. But is alcohol in itself a bad thing? It has a significant flavor impact, adding sweetness and body, and also heat at higher levels, as well as masking fruity aromas once it gets to 14% and beyond. But the main reason for concern is that it is an indicator of late picking, and while it is possible to have a high-alcohol red that still has fruit freshness (an example would be the 2010 Angélus, which is fresh and structured despite having 15.5% ABV, with a pH of 3.57), it usually means that the wine will have a sweet, jammy, dead-fruit flavor.

Dirk Niepoort and early picking

One of the most thoughtful commentators on fine wine is Dirk Niepoort, who is based in the Douro but who makes wine in collaboration with a number of wine growers elsewhere. He’s known for having begun to pick progressively earlier. But he doesn’t consider himself someone who picks early; rather, he’s someone who picks at the appropriate time. “In the Douro, our logic is more picking by ripeness of acidity than alcohol,” he says, “picking before the acidity falls dramatically. The result is having lesser alcohol, which is exactly what we are looking for in our wines.”

Niepoort thinks that the issue of appropriate picking time is a complex one, but he considers that there are two main reasons why, in general, people are picking too late these days. The first is the new era of fine wine that has been led by influential journalists such as Robert Parker and also the teaching in university enology courses about phenolic ripeness. The second is the viticultural changes that have taken place. “Parker was very influential, particularly in Bordeaux, together with consultants like Michel Rolland, together with universities, teaching people how to make Parker kind of wines,” says Niepoort. “They have been teaching winemakers to make ripe wines with a lot of alcohol, too much new wood, creating a mask that can be made everywhere. The wines are impressive and good for winning competitions and blind tastings.” But Niepoort thinks perhaps the bigger problem is with the new viticulture, new clones producing grapes with higher sugar levels. “The new approach to viticulture is similar to our modern medical care based on the pharma industry. It’s based not on harmony and prevention, but on pumping all the needs systematically and aggressively to the plants and earth. It’s a model based on steroids: stopping the headache but not avoiding it in the future.” Niepoort thinks that there’s a big gap between the old fashioned way of looking after vines and the modern one, though he acknowledges that not everything was good in the old days. “I find that the old-fashioned way reminds me in many ways of what we now call biodynamics, respecting nature, giving nature something back and not only taking. It’s respecting the land and the vines in a perspective of 12 months, and not using needles to correct in an aggressive way the vine’s needs, which ends up in excesses.” Niepoort points out that it is only the winemakers working with young, modern vines who have the problem of not achieving maturity yet making wines with 15% ABV. “Old vines, and especially old vines looked after in an old-fashioned way, first produce ripeness and then the alcohol. Because of the obsession with producing a lot, and a lot of alcohol, which was needed in cool countries in the past, modern viticulture produces first alcohol and then ripeness.” Niepoort reckons that another problem is that modern winemakers can do exactly as they please. “If nature doesn’t give it, then they can correct it,” he says. “This attitude makes winemakers lazy and less respectful of the vineyards. The cellar and all its equipment and enological powders become the center of our wine world. We are living a fake time. The wines are boring, taste all the same, don’t age, and have lost the ‘drinkability factor.’ It has become an industry. I believe we have to listen much more to nature, to the old people, and learn with them and combine that empirical knowledge with all our technical wisdom.”

Marcelo Papa’s Chilean revolution

It is time for an example of how some wine growers are revisiting the issue of ripeness and picking dates, and we will begin with perhaps an unexpected choice. Marcelo Papa is at the helm of one of the world’s leading wine companies, Chile’s Concha y Toro, and as such he may seem an unlikely revolutionary. But what he has been doing over the past few years with one of their key brands, Marqués de Casa Concha, represents a striking turnaround in a country not often associated with winemaking risk-taking.

“Marqués de Casa Concha is a classic, standard range that we have been doing for many years,” he explains. “It started in the mid-1970s with Cabernet Sauvignon, and the wine was very different in those days from the wine we make today, but it is the same vineyard, the Puente Alto vineyard.” Papa is fighting back against the tendency to make ever-riper wines, not only in Chile but also elsewhere. “My concern is that, for the past 10 to 12 years, we in Chile, and also many producers worldwide, have been pushing maturity further, starting to produce higher alcohol levels, more extraction, and more new oak barrels in order to make a blockbuster wine—not sweet in terms of sugar but sweet in terms of feeling. But I got a bit tired with this style. Starting in 2010, I began some experimentation. Today I am pretty clear of the way I am taking.”

In a way, it’s a flight from modernity and a return to the past. Ripeness has cost diversity. “In Chile, 20 years ago we picked the grapes earlier and used less oak,” says Papa. “There was much higher diversity of styles of wine. When you pick earlier, you get a bigger diversity of flavors. When you start to push maturity further and further, at the end a Cabernet and Merlot and a Syrah are pretty similar, with sweet fruit character.” Papa realized this a few years back when he was conducting a tasting of the three Concha y Toro icon wines at Vinexpo. “We did the tasting twice a day each day. We tasted Don Melchor, Gravas (Syrah), and Trivento Eolo (Malbec from Argentina). The three wines are made by Enrique Tirado, who has been working for a long time with Jacques Boissenot [the late Bordeaux consultant], and they pushed the maturity in order to get an elegant style. In the tasting I have the three glasses, and it is difficult to recognize which is which. If you are pushing maturity and using more oak, at the end you make standard aromas and standard flavors.”

Papa’s journey began with an experiment in the 2010 vintage, working with a section of the vineyard that is normally used to make Marqués de Casa Concha. “I decided to make a Cabernet with the techniques of the 1970s,” he reveals. “I didn’t ask anyone. I got an old block of Cabernet from Puente Alto that we normally pick in the last week of April, depending on the year, and I picked it in mid-March.” Papa says that during the worst years of overmaturity and extraction, this block was picked at the end of April, and so with this experiment he was picking more than a month earlier. “I made 20 tons of this. When I went to the vineyard, I tasted the grapes, and the seeds were green. So I closed my eyes and picked anyway. The wine was full of color and flavor, but tannic. I put it in old barrels of 400 liters and left it. Each time I tasted it, it was getting better, but for the first year it was undrinkable: too tannic.”

He continues, “We normally bottle Marqués 18 months after vintage. It was good at this stage, but I saved it and kept it separate. I bottled all the rest of the lots, and this one I kept for 30 months. Then I bottled it and showed it to Patricio Tapia [one of Chile’s leading wine critics]. It was 12.6% alcohol, and the acidity wasn’t adjusted. He thought it was fantastic.”

Tapia put this wine on the table for his annual Top 10 competition—which is part of his annual Descorchados wine guide—without Papa’s knowledge. Along with other judges such as Alejandro Vigil and Marcelo Retamal, Papa tasted it blind. “I remember very clearly that glass number 7 had fantastic blueberries and a full fruit character. Then when they took the cover off, it was our limited edition Cabernet, and it was selected as the best Cabernet in the country. This tasting reaffirmed to me that this is the direction we need to take.”

As well as picking a month earlier, Papa began shifting from small oak barrels to larger Italian botti. The 2013, for logistical reasons, was half picked early and half at the normal time, then matured in 10% botti; in 2014 all was picked early and Papa was up to 20% botti. In 2015 he was close to 50% botti and now has 30 of these 5,000-liter barrels and a couple of 2,000-liter ones.

Soil scientist and terroir expert Pedro Parra says that Chile has a wonderful diversity of terroirs but that this diversity isn’t always seen in the wines. Papa agrees: “If you push maturity and use new barrels, then you lose this diversity.”

“If this style is a success, many people will follow,” he says. “The problem is that, for a long time, we [in Chile] have been following recipes. First, we plant Cabernet, because it is so well known. How to age it? New barrels. My feeling is that for Maipo we get the best expression if we pick the grapes early, because the soils are very sandy and rocky. If we push maturity, we lose the character of Maipo. Maybe we could push maturity if we had soils with more clay. Maipo has shallow, sandy soils with no clay, and if you push maturity, you make a standard wine. And the barrels might not be the right solution. Maybe the botti are a good solution to show Maipo as pure as possible.” But Papa thinks that, in order to do this early picking, he needs to be working with good terroirs and vines that are at least 15 years old. “I tried it with younger vines, and the methoxypyrazines were too strong. The younger vines are still quite vigorous, and you get more greenness.”

One of the other advantages of picking early is that fewer additions are needed to the wine, and the fermentations go a lot more smoothly. “In the mid-1990s, I would pick grapes with 23.6–23.8° Brix, and I put in 5–7g/hl of yeast and 10 ppm DAP [diammonium phosphate, a synthetic nitrogen source], and this was all. Fermentation went fine,” he recalls. “In 2009, which was the peak of late harvest, we used 20g/hl of yeast, 60–70 ppm DAP, plus a battery of nutrients. Even like that, the fermentation was slow, and you’d need to pump over and extract. Early picking you feel more free to leave some lots fermenting wild. The wines will show much more diversity than the wines today.”

Advantages and disadvantages of picking later

From this, we can see some of the advantages and disadvantages of later picking for red wines. One advantage is that the wines taste “better” younger and appeal more to novice consumers. They also appeal more to American palates, which in general seem to prefer sweeter flavors. (Although this is, of course, a generalization, it has been borne out where American tasters judge the same wines as European tasters, such as in reruns of the Judgment of Paris tasting.) Generally speaking, the move to picking later, where vintage conditions permit, has seen the near disappearance of mean, green, unripe wines, and greater consistency, even in less promising vintages.

Disadvantages? Picking later obscures the differences between sites, and this sense of place, summed up by the term terroir, is at the heart of fine wine. It produces “international style” red wines, where sweet, dark fruit dominates and has to be bolstered structurally by the use of new barrels, further reducing the sense of place. A key disadvantage is that the must frequently needs correcting through the addition of tartaric acid and yeast nutrients, and even then ferments can struggle, leaving a little residual sugar in the wine, which, with the higher pH conditions, is an open door to Brettanomyces. And picking later results in alcohol levels that impact on the wine and obscure the aromatics. Finally, these later-picked wines have compromised ageability. There’s a lot of very expensive modern-style Bordeaux sitting in warehouses that may well not live as long as its owners hope. And it is certainly going to age differently from the classic years of the past, when the viticulture and winemaking were quite different.

In the next article in this series I’ll head to California, which is the epicenter of the debates over ripeness. This is where the controversial In Pursuit of Balance movement has clashed with the powerful critics who have been championing the super-ripe Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon style. Is it because of the critics that winemakers have been pushing ripeness, or are other forces at play? And what do we make of the new California wines, with alcohols as low as 12%? Is the pendulum swinging too far?