Ripeness, part 2: pursuing balance

Ripeness in Bordeaux

Of all the wine regions where ripeness has been a topic of controversy, one of the most interesting to follow has been Bordeaux. Because here, for a long time more was usually better. The concept of picking by taste rather than analysis, and above all else waiting for the flavours to develop, even affected the style of wines made in Bordeaux.

Classic Bordeaux shows a subtle greenness that’s a hallmark of the grape varieties used here: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and, in particular, Cabernet Franc. Greenness is normal in wines made from these grapes, but of late winemakers have been terrified by even the slightest bit of green flavour. Cheap Bordeaux is often under-ripe and decidedly green to a fault, but this doesn’t mean that because some extra ripeness is beneficial, that this benefit continues the longer the grapes are left to hang. And 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 the question is whether these more modern, riper wines will age as well as their predecessors. Many are convinced that the modern Bordeaux are better wines. “Deciding harvest time is important,” says Alfred Tesseron of Pontet Canet, a property whose reputation has soared with critics in recent years. ‘We used to decide by analyses. Now we work only by taste. A man who really 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 Mijtavile, 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.” Mitjaville 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 would be almost unheard of in the New World, and would have winemakers rushing for their sacks of tartaric acid. 


It is time for an example of how some winegrowers 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’s an unlikely revolutionary. But what he has been doing over the last few years with one of their key brands, Marques de Casa Concha, represents a striking turnaround in a country not often associated with winemaking risk taking.

“Marques 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 last 10-12 years we in Chile and also many producers worldwide have been pushing maturity further, starting to make bigger 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 flavours. 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 realised 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 flavours and standard aromas.”

Papa’s journey began with an experiment in the 2010 vintage, working with a section of the vineyard that is normally used to make Marques 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 the worst years of over maturity 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 colour and flavour, but tannic. I put it old barrels of 400 litres 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 Marques 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 blind. “I remember 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, and 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 5000 litre barrels and a couple of 2000 litre 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. It 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 is a good solution to show Maipo as pure as possible.” But Papa thinks that on order to do this early picking, he needs to be working with good terroirs and vines 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 in 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 5-7 g/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 20 g/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 freer to leave some lots fermenting wild. The wines will show much more diversity than the wines today.”


In 2011 Rajat Parr and Jasmine Hirsch founded the In Pursuit of Balance Movement (IPOB). Parr is a sommelier-turned-winegrower who rose to prominence through his role at Michael Mina’s RN74 in San Francisco, and his book “Secrets of the Sommeliers”. Jasmine Hirsch is the daughter of David Hirsch, who developed the pioneering Hirsch vineyard on the Sonoma Coast. Both share in common a passion for fine wine.

How did it all begin? In 2011 Parr was just releasing the first wines from his Santa Barbara County negociant winery Sandhi, and Hirsch was starting her role as general manager with the new wines from her family’s vineyard. “We were talking and started discussing who our favourite producers of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir were,” recalls Parr. “We came up with a small list of 14 or 15 names.” They decided to organize a tasting, and although they had a free venue in RN74, they needed glasses and tables. This prompted them to throw the tasting open to consumers and sell tickets to cover their costs. “We gave the tasting a random name, In Pursuit of Balance,” says Parr. “Then after the tasting – which was packed – there were a lot of articles in the press, some positive but a lot negative. It is almost as if someone had drawn a line in the sand, saying this is different to what is happening in California. This wasn’t intentional. It wasn’t a movement or an intention to change anything.”

After the tasting, the participating producers decided they’d like to repeat it on a bigger scale. They held a tasting in New York, and also again in San Francisco. “It has been very successful with the audience, but it has been very negative with the producers who are not members,” says Parr. “I got a lot of hate mail.”

But he agrees with some of the criticisms, but thinks others are unwarranted. “They said it’s a kind of cool kids’ club,” he says, but points out that for a while now new entrants have had to pass a blind tasting test with a committee to be included in the group. “Some people might say it is elitist, but it’s all about discussion, about putting forward an idea about what we do in California,” says Parr. “Because the reputation of California outside California is not favourable: it’s big oaky, rich wines. Even now, all the highest-scoring wines in the press are the big heavy wines. There is no one endorsing elegant wines. People buy by scores, so we said if we have a group and our own voice, we might not need anyone else.” Parr adds, “we want to tell the world that California can produce balanced, fresh, non-manipulated wines.”

“When you say you are pursuing balance, people who are making wines of style say, wait a minute, are you saying my wines aren’t any good?” says Ehren Jordan of Failla, one of the IPOB member wineries. “There’s that inference that if you are not in IPOB, your wines aren’t balanced.” He adds, “these [IPOB] wines are going after the thoughtful wine drinker. I don’t know whether America is full of thoughtful wine drinkers. There is a reason we make lots of wines of style in the USA: they appeal to the American palate.”

Indeed, one of the implications from the name is that those who aren’t part of the group are making unbalanced wines, but the emphasis of IPOB has been to talk about this fresher, lighter style of wine without criticizing other wine styles. “A lot of people pick quite late and they have to manipulate their wines,” says Parr. “But it’s not our job to tell these people they should change, or to tell someone else that those wines are bad and ours are better. The idea is that what we do is to give people another choice. Here’s a different style of wine that is more old world than new world.”

IPOB has continued to hold tastings, expanding from New York and San Francisco to include Los Angeles, London, Tokyo, Houston and Dusseldorf. By 2016 there were 36 member wineries, but the organization finished its work and closed at the end of that year. “We created IPOB at a time when this conversation was not taking place on a broad and public level,” says Hirsch. “We achieved what we intended – to bring the debate around balance and winemaking styles to the forefront of the wine community.” She emphasizes that while IPOB has stopped, the debate is still not finished. “We wanted to end on a high note, and the impact of the IPOB events held around the globe shows that our message is resonating solidly in the wine trade as well as with consumers. This discussion about balance and wine’s place at the dinner table has become a common part of the conversation about California wine all over the world.”


“You can always pick grapes earlier,” says Sashi Moorman, who works with Raj Parr as winemaker and co-owner of Sandhi and Domaine de la Côte in the Santa Rita Hills, in California’s Santa Barbara County, as well as consulting for others. “The question is, when you pick earlier, can you still get the transparency of the fruit or are you just going to get another style? There’s a ripe style and then there’s a less ripe style.” Just as you can lose terroir from picking too late, he suggests, you can lose it by picking too early.

“Raj [Parr] and I are not interested in style,” says Moorman, “we are interested in site expression. I think when people are talking about terroir they are really talking about the soils, but the climate is what gives you the ability to express the soil. If you are in a warm climate it becomes more and more difficult as the grapes get riper and riper. It becomes more about ripeness: that quality that can be lovely, but which is more about the roundness of the wine. As you go for earlier picking, when you are working in cooler climates, here you can begin to focus on different sites. You get the expression when you are at marginal ripeness zones. I think this is why you see more terroir expressive wines in cooler climates, whether you ate in Europe or California or anywhere in the world. And this is the pursuit: to find the place where you have a cool climate that moderates the ripening so you can pick the grapes at a time when you get this site expression.”

So IPOB isn’t just about alcohol levels, and a crazy desire to make wines at 12% alcohol. “I think you can take it too far,” says Moorman, “at which point the wine is still good wine, but it is now a wine of the opposite style. Instead of the ripe style, it is now a lean style.” He adds, “I think what most winemakers want to do is to find that area where you can make something distinctive.” 

The point that Moorman makes is an important one. While picking earlier is often a good idea if you have been picking a little too late, a winegrower needs to understand their terroir in choosing when to pick. They need to interpret it wisely. Some sites have a talent for certain styles of wines, and there are sites that don’t respond well to early picking. As an example, Australian Chardonnay has seen a style revolution of late, with winegrowers looking to make leaner, more elegant expressions of this variety. But sometimes the result can be lemon juice with a bit of matchstick minerality from toying with reduction. These can be tasty wines, but they are wines of style, and aren’t necessarily intelligent interpretations of their terroirs. A simple black and white view that low alcohol is good and higher alcohol is bad doesn’t reflect the complex reality of producing terroir-driven wines.

Adam Tolmach of Ojai Vineyard also famously changed his style in the mid 2000s, moving to earlier picking. His Santa Barbara County wines, which were sought after and received high critic scores, were tipping 15% alcohol and beyond. Tolmach decided he didn’t like them anymore, and made the brave decision to change things. “I’d stopped drinking my own wines,” he’s quoted as saying. One of his early forays into lower alcohol, more balanced wines was his 2005 Ojai Vineyard Pinot Noir Clos Pepe Vineyard (Early Harvest) bottling. Parker reviewed it and described it as a borderline failure, giving it a score of 81/100. Interestingly, though, fellow critic and ex-Parker protégé Antonio Galloni gave it 93/100 when he reviewed it in 2014, suggesting that it had aged quite nicely. Tolmach’s wines aren’t the earliest picked, even today nudging 14% alcohol, but he was courageous to make a noticeable style change towards picking earlier while he was already very successful, because he believed it led to better wines.

Another IPOB star also did a dramatic style about-change. Jamie Kutch caught the wine bug while working as a NASDAQ trader for Merrill Lynch in New York, and this led him to change careers before he’d broken 30. “Growing up I was always a hobby guy,” says Kutch. “I fell in love with wine in college. Then when I was working on a trading desk at Merrill Lynch, I geeked out with friends on Friday nights.” Kutch fell in love with Pinot Noir, and approached Michael Kosta Browne, who took him on as an intern. This led to Kutch and his partner relocating to San Francisco, where began living a double life, trading and then making wine at the weekends. The day job lasted six months. When his internship came to an end, Jamie started his own project making Pinot Noir. His first vintage was 2005, and he made a mere 150 cases. This had a heady alcohol level of 16.3% alcohol. His second vintage weighed in at 15.2% alcohol and Jim Laube of the Wine Spectator gave this wine 93 points. “I now get scores in the low 80s,” Kutch shares, “but I regard these as a badge of honour!” The third vintage he picked incredibly early and it ended up at 13.2% alcohol. He’s moved on from then, even: his 2013 Pinots ranged between 12.1 and 12.3% alcohol, and are beautiful wines, not lacking in flavour, intensity and texture. And they will likely age really well. 


The Napa Valley is a key battle ground in the debate over appropriate ripeness levels for fine wine. The move in the late 1990s towards riper styles of wines has been well documented, not least by Jon Bonné in his book The New California. The prevailing narrative is that this is a stylistic move prompted by the decision by producers to make wines of the type favoured by the critics. That is, the move towards ripeness follows a deliberate change of course by producers to pick later in order to have a sweeter fruit profile and richer flavours, which is inevitably accompanied by a rise in alcohol levels. But there is an alternative reading of this situation; one that is more nuanced and places less blame at the part of producers. This is a viticultural story. Sashi Moorman says that it’s not so straightforward to suggest that in California people have just been picking too late. “It’s super-complicated,” he says, “because viticulture in California has changed a lot over the last 20 years. 10-15 years ago the genetic material in the wasn’t as good as we have today and viticulture itself was not as sophisticated.” He thinks that the changes of viticulture have allowed people to plant in cooler sites that are suddenly viable, and that this can help keep alcohols down. But new plant material in warmer sites can be problematic.

Back in the 1990s there was wide scale replanting in the Napa. The big explosion of planting in the late 1960s and 1970s had largely taken place on one particular rootstock: AxR1. This is a cross between Aramon (Vitis vinifera) and Ganzin (Vitis rupestris), and it is a strong performer, resulting in high quality and yields, ease of propagation and tolerance to viruses. But it isn’t terribly phylloxera resistant and by the mid-1980s it was being wiped out by a strain of phylloxera called Biotype B. As these vines were succumbing, they were replaced with new rootstock and the latest virus-free clones of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and other key varieties. The consequence was new vineyards on vertical shoot-positioned trellises that produced extremely efficient canopies. In the warm Napa Valley climate, these began pumping sugar into the grapes as they ripened in a much more efficient way than the vines had done in the past. Thus we have a perfect storm of over-ripeness. First, producers find their alcohol levels rising, as the quest for physiological ripeness, itself a relatively new concept, led them to leave the grapes hanging to the point that Brix levels at harvest were sky high. Then there was the stylistic preference of the leading critics who seemed to reward the riper style of wines with big scores and punish anything they saw as light or green. It’s likely a combination of these factors – stylistic choice plus super-efficient vine canopies – that has led to unbalanced high alcohol wines. There may also be a contribution from global warming, although the influence of climate change on the temperatures in the Napa Valley is not clear cut, because of the important cooling effect of the ocean-cooled air currents that find their way into the valley. But it is clearly not as easy to make wines that have good flavour ripeness with moderate alcohols as it used to be, even though there is an interesting discussion about what exactly flavour or phenolic ripeness is. 

But while Napa is not really IPOB territory, and there are still plenty of big, ripe Cabernets being made here, there are signs that this is changing. Not everyone is happy making big, sweet wines. The likes of Mayacamas and Corison are bright lights showing the way forwards: Napa can make structured, balanced Cabernet Sauvignon with a potential for ageing at moderate alcohol levels. Historically, the great wines of the 1970s that have aged beautifully, invariably have alcohol levels around 13%. Chris Howell at Cain has been another voice of moderation when it comes to ripeness. A thoughtful winemaker, in 2012 he wrote an essay on ripeness which he sent out as a communiqué to his mailing list. “I was prompted to write this as a way of reflecting on our choices at Cain as to when to harvest,” shares Howell. “As early as 1992, we were beginning to note among our colleagues a drift toward picking riper and riper. By 1997, when Cain was working with some outstanding vineyards in the Napa Valley, our preferences to pick as much as three weeks before many of our friends was becoming painfully apparent.” He ascribes this later picking to several causes. “Both the terms ‘physiologic’ and ‘phenolic’ ripeness were in use. In practice, winemakers were looking for fully brown seeds as an indicator of tannin ripeness. Besides consultants such as Michel Rolland, the early 1990s also saw the beginning of enology laboratories performing sophisticated tests for anthocyanins and tannins.” Howell published his own version of the charts concerning ripeness devised by French viticulturist Alain Carbonneau. In 2007 Carbonneau proposed a model of grape ripening based on 20 years’ experience in a paper titled Théorie de la maturation et de la typicité du raisin (theory of grape berry maturation and typicity) in which he considered a number of ripening scenarios and the sensory characters of wines made from grapes picked at different levels of ripeness. “His key point was to present an array of semi-independent attributes and show how, under varying circumstances, they might evolve differently in the course of ripening,” explains Howell. “Each region, in each vintage, for each variety, and each vineyard is a different case, so there could be a different chart in each instance. It’s somewhat analogous to an adjustable combination lock, except that there is no simple yes/no answer.”

Howell thinks that it might be the way we taste as professionals that has in part led to riper wines. “While most of the drift toward ripeness has been ascribed either to critics or consumer preference, my thought is that this bias toward ripeness can be ascribed specifically to the methodology of comparative tasting,” he proposes. “As gatherer/hunter primates, as with most creatures, our first preference goes toward sweetness, and away from sourness, bitterness, and astringency. Intrinsically, we all like ripeness. In almost all comparative tastings, up to a certain point, it seems that ripeness is always preferred.

As far as I know, these comparative tastings yield similar outcomes among wine drinkers, wine professionals, wine critics and winemakers.”

“At first, this does indeed say that these ripe wines are the ones that we like to taste. But are these also the wines we like to drink? In time, many of us learn to appreciate some bitterness, sourness and astringency, at least in certain contexts. We like to think that comparative tastings give us some objective measure of what we’re talking about, but what if the method intrinsically conditions the outcome?”

Ripeness PART 1, PART 2, PART3