The Quest for Perfect Ripeness

The Quest for Perfect Ripeness

Heading into harvest, the winemaker’s focus is acutely attuned to what’s taking place in the vineyards. We’re seeking our Holy Grail. The elusive phenomenon of perfect ripeness. There is no single indicator of ripeness, but rather a whole gamut of activities taking place in the highly complex, living, breathing organism that is a grapevine, all of which contribute, each in their own way, to the overall picture. But deciding when the fruit is ready to pick is possibly the single most important (and sometimes the toughest) decision we make all year. So how do we get it right?

Grapevines, like all flowering plants, are pretty cunning when it comes to ripening their fruit. Ripening is stage-managed by the vine to attract birds to eat the grapes and disperse the seeds. The purpose is to ensure the future of the species. Not to assist winemakers to make wine. In the wild all grapes turn red when they are ripe. It’s much harder for a bird to see green grapes on the vine, a camouflage ploy by the vine to protect seeds that are not yet ready. Unripe grapes don’t taste too good either. The acid is high, the sugar is low, the tannins are bitter.

As the grapes start ripening, a whole lot of changes are taking place. The colour changes from green to purple, the sugar increases, the acid decreases, the tannins mature and the flavours develop at exactly the appropriate time that the seeds are ripe and ready to be scattered. It’s a way of not only attracting little winged helpers, but also a way to reward them for their efforts with a delicious feast.

Winemakers make a distinction between sugar ripeness and physiological ripeness, which incorporates all the changes going on within the grape, most notably the changes in flavour as the fruit develops. Physiological ripeness is an ideal rather than a definitive stage. It’s often a trade-off to get the best balance of all attributes available in a particular season without going past optimum ripeness. Each element follows its own path towards ripeness at its own rate. So it becomes a balancing act on our part, trying to find that elusive moment where all the stars align. The human element is vital. Our palates are subjective – the perfect tool for determining a subjective measure like perfect ripeness! And just like the birds, we know when something tastes good. So we’re out in the vineyards every couple of days when we get close to harvest, thinking like the birds.

Perfect physiological ripeness relies on perfect balance and that relies on all these factors coming together in one glorious hurrah. That’s what we call an outstanding vintage.