when we evaluate wine quality, let's remember that wine is a natural product. in fact and possibly grossly stated, wine is basically alcoholic grape juice and the best grape juice can only come from the best grapes. that means grapes picked at optimal ripeness.
and that is my take on wine quality: where does it come from and was it made with the best possible raw materials? this is the question we should ask ourselves when we taste wine to evaluate quality.
to follow up on my posts about wine tasting, i would like to bring up the subject of grape ripeness here below.
optimum ripeness is the perfect balance between the sugars, the acids, and the phenolics - all naturally presents in all fruits. as the grape ripens in the vineyard, the sugars and acids evolves in an inversely proportional relationship, meaning that, as the sugars increase, the acids will decrease. as for the phenolics, the chemical compounds found in the skin, the pulp, the pips etc which gives us the aromas, flavours, and tannins, they will increase, albeit at a different rate, together with the sugars. and so, all this to say, the decision when to pick the grape is super important because this balance (or imbalance) will be reflected in the quality of the final wine.
sugars are critical to produce alcohol. too few sugars, the wine will be light and low in alcohol and, as we have seen, it will also mean that the acidity will be high and therefore the wine will be tart and out of balance. conversely, too high sugars will make the wine very full and alcoholic and therefore the acidity will be low and again the wine will be hot and out of balance.
acids are important as the sugars. they contribute to freshness and, as they are preservatives, play an important role in the preservation and ageing of the wine. acidity is always an important element of the wine balance.
as for phenolics, too few and the wine will be insipid, characterless, and if it is red, it will not have good enough tannins to provide that all important structure needed for the red to age beautifully.
now, the challenge is this. some grapes, by nature, ripens faster than others. and so the weather, the site and the vine-growing techniques become super important when it comes to ripeness. grow the wrong grape on the wrong site and the wine will show accordingly. be unlucky enough to have a cold, cloudy, and rainy summer and again your grapes will not ripen properly and the wine will show accordingly. this is why in fact that some regions will be very successful only with a particular type of grape. it is also why some wines made from fashionable grapes can be absolutely terrible from some site because the grower only cared about fashion but no so much about whether his site was suitable for the grape (the reason why so many chardonnays and cabernet sauvignon in this world are absolutely appalling).
and so, ripeness is key and the optimum conditions for optimum ripeness are:
- long & slow ripening season from a warm (not hot) summer, and a long, dry, warm autumn;
- low yields from the control of vines & bunch growth in the vineyards so that all the energy is concentrated on the grapes and not on the leaves and the plant growth;
- large temperature difference between day and night so that the grape aromas and flavours (the phenolics) develop firmly in the grape while its natural acidity builds up and is preserved;
- free draining soils so that the the root system grows deep into the ground and the vines does not have too much water so that its vigour and yields are naturally controlled.
optimum ripeness from optimum conditions will give us maximum concentration and complexity, the highest possible natural acidity, the ripest & softest tannins, and the perfect balance of its components - alcohol/acidity/tannins/fruit. all critical elements of quality in white and red wines.
and so, the next time i will evaluate a wine, i will ask myself the all important question: does the wine in my glass come from ripe grapes?
a simple question but one that we all too often forget...