The Hang Time Issue, Part Two
By Steve Heimoff
The controversy roiling the California wine industry affects consumer choice and the future of American wine styles.
Editor's note: In our April issue, Contributing Editor Jeff Morgan presented his view of the controversy over extended hang time in the California wine industry. Two of Morgan's salient points: "Ultra-ripe grapes produce the lush, full, round and supple wines that have become the hallmark of Napa Valley Cabernet. If a wine tastes great, who cares what the alcohol level is?" "There appears to be scientific justification for winemakers to favor longer hang times. [A recent study] showed [that] unripe, vegetal flavors disappeared from Cabernet only after the grapes had reached levels of at least 24 brix." Here is Steve Heimoff's take:
I've expressed concern for some time about long hang time, or extended maturation (EM). The term refers to the practice, not only in California but around the wine world, of allowing grapes to hang on vines far longer than was ever historically the case, in order to let acids drop, sugars rise and tannins ripen. This makes for softer, fruitier, less vegetal wines that can be drunk earlier—the kind the public likes, and the critics praise.
In the 1960s in California, fruit for table wines used to be picked at 20.5° to 22.5° of brix, or grape sugar. By the mid-1990s, this level had risen to 24.5°. Nowadays, many grapes are harvested at 27, 28, even 30°.
My concern over EM has never gone as far as outright criticism, because much of what it accomplishes is good. As both a wine drinker and a critic, I like fruit in wines, and I dislike mouth-numbing tannins.
However, my position is rapidly shifting against excessive EM, because the practice is becoming extreme. Here are the problems I see with EM:
All EM wines of the same varieties tend to taste alike. When you can hardly tell the difference between Château Lafite and a Spring Mountain Cabernet, what's going on? Terroir, is being obliterated by a monochronicity of winemaking style.
Different varieties, such as Syrah, Cabernet and even Pinot Noir, are beginning to taste alike, as EM fosters universal flavors of blackberries, cherries, currants and chocolate that slash across and blur varietal boundaries.
The higher alcohol that inevitably occurs in riper wines overwhelms food, or is clumsy with many foods unless the recipes are so fussily prepared that only a professional chef can create them. Higher alcohol also doesn't fit in with today's healthier, safe-driving lifestyle.
Although alcohol content in wines can be reduced, through adding water or by technological means such as spinning cones, the wine industry should not encourage these sorts of manipulations, which take away from the natural wholesomeness wine should have.
High-alcohol wines may also threaten U.S. exports. There's evidence that not everyone in foreign countries, particularly Asia and Europe, shares the American palate for sweet fruitiness. In a global economy where exporting is more important than ever for U.S. wineries, they may be manufacturing products that are disliked abroad.
EM can be used as a "magic bullet" by growers and vintners, who feel they can ignore sound (and expensive) viticultural and enological practices and make great wine simply by letting grapes achieve 28° of brix.
EM is at best an educated guess, usually on the part of the winemaker and not the grower, that the wine will be better if the grapes are allowed to hang on the vine for a few extra days or even weeks. But winemakers, even the best of them, are not clairvoyant.
EM red wines are not likely to age. They're too soft, too unbalanced. This is fine for folks who don't cellar wines, but in about 10 years, those who do are going to open a lot of disappointing bottles.
EM represents the triumph of a small coterie of wine critics who prefer the full-blown style. The PR and marketing representatives of wineries, who crave high scores from these powerful critics, force winemakers to make wine in this style. It's no wonder that grapegrowers, who were taught to grow a balanced plant, not a freakish one, are almost universally opposed to EM—and now, we know they have another good reason to be, because:
EM has potentially harmful long-term effects on vineyards. Experts from the University of California, Davis stated that EM may negatively impact vine leaves, flowers, roots and ultimately the vine's ability to transport carbohydrates and nutrients. These risks are increased when EM vines are "stressed," as they are in many of the world's better vineyards, which are located in poor soils or on well-drained hillsides.
It turns out, amazingly, that many of the viticultural issues concerning EM have never been studied, because the practice is so new, and because of lack of funding. Given the increasingly serious implications of EM, it's time for this industry to study all of EM's impacts, and for growers and winemakers—who traditionally have an uneasy relationship—to work together and figure out ways to develop fruity flavors without running the risks we now know to be inherent in excessive EM.