When Hang Time Hangs You Up
The Controversy over ripeness levels in california winegrapes bothers some growers, critics and enologists - but delights fans of lush, fruit-forward wines.
To hang or not to hang? It's a question that weighs heavily on the minds of winemakers throughout California every year in mid- to late September. "Hanging" refers to the act of letting grapes remain on the vines until they achieve desired ripeness.
The issue of when to pick is so critical that a recent seminar on the subject attracted nearly 600 winemakers and grapegrowers to the small Napa Valley town of St. Helena. It was billed as a battle between the growers and the winemakers. Apparently, some growers have been grousing about the fact that winemakers are waiting so long to pick their grapes that there's precious little left on the vine but shriveled berries. Shriveled berries mean less weight in tonnage; and that translates to less money in a grapegrower's pocket.
This, of course, is pretty much nonsense. Twenty years ago, the average price per ton of California red wine grapes was barely $175. At that time, if someone had told grower and seminar organizer Andy Beckstoffer he would be paid the $6,000-plus per ton he now gets for his choicest Cabernet Sauvignon, he wouldn't have believed it.
Today, all the best growers get top dollar for their grapes, even though they might lose a little tonnage to the shrivel factor. But that shrivel factor is the key to the current style of winemaking so popular among consumers and winemakers: Ultraripe grapes produce the lush, supple wines that have become the hallmark of Napa Valley Cabernet. Some say these wines are too alcoholic—the fermentation result of grapes that contain too much sugar.
I don't think so. Last fall, I attended a tasting of wines that had been scored 100 points by wine critic Robert Parker. Among them were some fabulous French wines as well as a few terrific samples from Napa Valley. The one wine the attending sommeliers fought over after the tasting was Harlan Estate. It displayed a lushness that only comes from extended California hang time. I had to admit it was my favorite of the day as well.
You don't make a wine like that in Napa Valley by picking early at 23 brix, as renowned viticulturist Richard Smart suggested was possible during the seminar. (Brix is a measure of sugar and ripeness in grapes. Typically, the best Cabernet is picked between 25 to 27 brix, or even higher. White wine grapes are different. With higher acidity and earlier ripening, they are generally harvested before the reds.) Smart was one of five scientists who spoke at the hang-time seminar. The Australian is probably the most influential vineyard consultant in the New World. But I think he's wrong when he says extended hang time is unnecessary. Few Cabs grown in my neighborhood, Napa Valley, are picked early at low sugar levels. I'm waiting for proof to the contrary. So far, it hasn't been forthcoming.
Meanwhile, there appears to be scientific justification for winemakers to favor longer hang times for red grapes. Another speaker at the seminar, Nick Dokoozlian, pointed out that he had performed a study that showed unripe, vegetal flavors disappeared from Cabernet only after the grapes had reached levels of at least 24 brix. Once these flavors, which can be redolent of green beans, grass or asparagus, disappear ripe fruit flavors become more apparent.
It makes sense to me. Taste Cabernet grown in a cooler climate such as New York or Chinon, in France's Loire Valley. These wines can be tasty, but they are marked by herbal notes that would be inappropriate to Napa Valley.
Unfortunately, despite the data presented at the hang-time seminar, there was no consensus among the scientists about how to speed up flavor development on the vine. In fact, two wine researchers from the University of California at Davis could really only state that very little study had been done on the subject. It was a somewhat depressing revelation of the traditional disconnect between academia and reality. Is there, indeed, a war between the growers and winemakers? The mood at the seminar seemed far too cordial for that. After all, our wine community is a symbiotic family. Aside from Smart's occasional acerbic barbs ("Winemakers are not people. Yeast are winemakers."), the worst roasting was directed at the American wine media for championing high-alcohol wines.
Frankly, I'm so tired of that debate. Ultimately, proof of quality is in the bottle. If a wine tastes great, who cares what the alcohol level is?
For now, it looks to me like extended hang time is here to stay. The good news for growers of high-quality grapes is that they are making more money than they ever dreamed of. The better news for consumers is that Napa Valley Cabernet never tasted so good.
For Part II of this debate, check out Steve Heimoff's column in the May issue of Wine Enthusiast Magazine.