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Whither Hangtime?

by David on July 28, 2007

Where to start on this issue? And how to know where it’s going? This has been brewing for quite some time but, in the last 4-6 weeks, the drum-beat has gotten so loud that it’s making my head hurt! Is this truly the beginning of a significant pendulum swing or is this just a lot of people (mainly bloggers) talking?

I mention the bloggers because, like Jeff at Good Grape, I wonder how much influence blogs have. I took a quick look at the Winery Website Report to get an idea of how many wineries post a blog and, I must say, Goosecross is part of a very elite group. ;-) No doubt they’ve missed a few, but they reported that 51 wineries in their global database have a blog, a few in California, and the ones from Napa Valley can be counted on one hand with a finger or two missing. High profile, influential wineries are conspicuously absent from the list. If they don’t write them do they read them???

But I digress… Anyway, here’s a recap of the main gripes:

1. High alcohol wines are too overbearing and don’t go with food. I was lucky enough to ask Darrell Corti directly about his decision to stop carrying wines over 14.5% in a podcast interview (episode to be released 8/21) and he said he doesn’t consider them table wines. They’re too big for the food and they’re too tiring.

2. High alcohol wines all begin to taste the same and the sense of “terroir” is lost.

3. They’re too sweet.

And, here are the main reasons cited for the high alcohol (for a little background read previous post):

1. Longer hangtime: Winemakers are waiting longer to harvest in order to produce richer, rounder, extremely flavorful wines, AKA “fruitbombs”, and to avoid “green”, tannic character.

2. “Super yeasts”: Yeasts have been “cleaned up” over the last few decades and are more efficient converters of sugar to alcohol.

3. Healthier vines: The replanting during the phylloxera years has given us younger, healthier vines that are also more effective at converting sunlight to sugar.

4. Vertical shoot positioning (VSP): The above combined with the maximized sunlight exposure the vines get with VSP bumps up the sugar.

5. Powerful wine critics: This can’t really be separated from the first point. Winemakers go with extended hangtime because they’re more likely to be rewarded with high ratings by a handful of extremely influential wine critics.

Some blame global warming, but that seems a bit premature. See previous post for more on that.

So, with all of those factors conspiring together is a pendulum swing back toward lower alcohols a possibility, assuming that’s a good idea? Many see these factors as overwhelming, especially in a warm climate like Napa Valley, but Eric Asimov believes big, high-alcohol wines are a choice and I tend to agree. “…to suggest that it’s necessary in California rather than a stylistic decision on the part of the winemaker is plain wrong.”

I know I’ve cited this study ad nauseum (scroll down to get to the hangtime section), but it’s pertinent to this issue of the necessity of high sugars/alcohols to get full fruit maturity. In this study Ed Weber, the Napa County viticulture advisor for the University of California Cooperative Extension, noted that metabolized sugar increases seemed to stop at about 25-26 degrees brix and after that the sugar accumulation was due to simple dehydration. He also observed that a vineyard that tended to make vegetal wine at low sugars still made greenish wine at 26 degrees brix.

And, guess what? All those vines that we replanted in the 90s are getting older as we speak.

We don’t have to use “super yeasts”, or any yeast at all, if we decide it’s not smart.

VSP is great, but we can manage the vines in whatever manner we decide is the most advantageous – admittedly these changes would be slow, barring some kind of catastrophe. Bite your tongue!!! :-0

So how to predict the future? That’s the hard part. There’s this nebulous feeling that the pendulum just might be ready to swing back. Is it truly change that’s in the air? Or is it all just a bunch of hot air in the blogosphere? ;-)

“High alcohol wines have had their day.” says a grocery chain wine specialist. But, as Bob Pepi has said repeatedly, it’s possible to make balanced wine that’s 14.5% and I can’t argue with the countless delicious examples I’ve tasted to back his theory. But still… And what about those wines that are over 15%? Who knows? Hang on… ;-)

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