Green and porty

The biggest problem with Australian red wines is not ‘brett’ or oak chips or residual sugar, but something more fundamental: the ripeness of the grapes. Judging in shows across Australia and tasting in many different contexts, I find ripeness is the key issue that brings winemakers unstuck. It’s the main difference between those making very good wine and those just failing to. It’s a matter of the grapes, or a proportion of the grapes in the mix, were harvested at the wrong level of ripeness. They were either underripe (green) or overripe.

These wines may be fair average drinking, but they will fail to win a medal in a show, fail to impress a wine writer sufficiently to gain a review, fail to charm a sommelier or retailer enough to win a place on their shelf or wine-list.

At least 50% of wines fall into that category. If you’re a punter, wandering into a bottle-shop in search of a bottle for the evening, in the absence of any other guiding information you have about a one in two chance of picking up this kind of wine.

How do you tell if the grapes weren’t properly ripe? Every wine is different, but there is a basket of traits that point toward the syndrome. Underripe grapes give wines that have herbaceous aromas and thin palates. At the least, they may lack middle, they may lack fruit-sweetness, they may taste ‘cold’ rather than ‘warm’ or rich. Cabernet will have a strong crushed-leaf, or worse, a weedy aroma. Shiraz will be peppery and vegetal. Both will tend to have harsh, astringent tannins. Unripe merlot can be worse than either, smelling of tomato bush, pine needles, rank undergrowth and a plethora of other unpleasant vegetal smells.

Overripe grapes, on the other hand, can give a wine that smells of raisins, or port, or in its least objectionable guise, sweet berry jam or cooked fruit. Overripe wines are high in glycerol and alcohol, with a syrupy texture and a lasting impression of sweetness which is not always to do with residual sugar. They often lack structure because the soft tannins are swamped by sweet fruit, alcohol and glycerol.

Unripe wines are often tartly acidic while the overripe are often spirity and ‘hot’ from a surfeit of alcohol. Neither is attractive, as both wines lack balance – the most fundamental quality parameter of wine. The human palate responds most favourably to the harmonious and the symmetrical.

In red wines made from vines that have been stressed by excessive heat or/and lack of water, you can find the underripe/overripe syndrome. This is wine which shows the characteristics of both under- and overripe grapes, because the vine has stopped photosynthesising due to stress, and the grapes have remained physiologically unripe, yet they’ve achieved high sugar concentration by dehydration. These wines can taste truly awful! An extra, visual, tell-tale sign is that they often have a blackish color. The problem may be increasing because we’re having more droughts.

Which is worse: under- or overripe?

Most experienced tasters seem to prefer an overripe wine to underripe, because at least overripe wines can be pleasing to the palate. Sweet and porty is preferable to tart and weedy any day! Ideally, you wouldn’t have to make that choice.

As with most issues to do with quality in wine, there is no clear dividing line between bad and good.

Making a call as to whether a wine is seriously unripe or overripe comes down to personal tolerance levels. Wine judges know this well: there is many an impasse when one judge thinks a wine is green and another reckons it’s ripe.

People also tend to like what they are used to tasting. The old joke about the difference between a New Zealand and an Australian palate, is that we reckon their reds are green, and they reckon ours are jammy (it’s different today, as New Zealand red wines are achieving higher ripeness levels than ever.)

Another complicating factor in this discussion is that red wines are seldom one thing or the other. All wines are composed of the juice of millions of individual grape berries, and when a typical vineyard is harvested, some of those berries will be less ripe than others. In Coonawarra, they’ve started to understand how mass mechanised harvesting of large vineyards can lead to some very strange flavours when areas of the vineyard are seriously unripe while others are fully ripe and still others may be overripe. The main cause of this ripening differential is soil variation. Soil mapping, near-infra-red photography and selective harvesting are helping overcome the problem. This promises to revolutionise Coonawarra viticulture and, potentially, wine quality. The green-and-porty reds of the 1980s minimal pruning era will not be missed.

The sorting table, long a part of the Burgundy vigneron’s equipment, is seen increasingly in Australian wineries. Not only does it enable human hands to remove rotten grapes, leaves and foreign matter, it also gives the winemaker the opportunity to remove green and raisined grapes which would otherwise compromise the wine.

Attention to ripeness is probably one of several reasons why today’s red wines are more alcoholic than yesterday’s – more of the grapes are simply riper.

When more winemakers learn how to pick grapes at optimal ripeness, it will be a whole new ballgame.

First published in Gourmet Traveller Wine – Aug-Sep 2009.

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