sugar concentrationEver wonder what it is in sugar that makes our kids run around like crazy? Or why we like it in all forms?  Well, I don’t have the answers here, sorry. But, I do have an opinion about high sugars in grapes. Maybe they are somehow related. 

I just came back from a seminar put on by the Napa Valley Grape Growers association. The main topic was different, but the high sugar topic was top of mind and kept on creeping into the discussion.

In the last few years, there seems to be a preference for higher alcohol levels in red wines. There seems to be a market preference, which might be driven by a reviewer’s preference and in some cases this leads winemakers to cater to that preference.  This means picking grapes later to allow the sugar level in the grapes to increase relative to the overall weight of the grapes (measured in Brix). The phenomena is called Letting it Hang. An increase in Brix level ultimately results in an increase in alcohol level in the wine. If you noticed, I am being very careful with my words.  There is more and more evidence that the increase in sugar level is not because the vine is producing more sugar but because the clusters are dehydrating, therefore increasing the ratio of sugar to the rest of the grape cluster weight. This is a trick the Italians play with their intoxicating Amarone, except they dehydrate the grapes after they pick them.

Why does it matter? Two main reasons:

  1. As the grapes shrink due to dehydration, the growers that get paid by the ton get short changed–that’s most of them.
  2. Winemakers that pick very late with high sugar levels risk picking grapes with low acids and high PH. Resulting in either an unbalanced wine, or perhaps worse–a wine that has to be manipulated to bring it back into balance.

Why do I think it should matter to wine drinkers?  well, at least in my opinion, high alcohol wines typically result in heavy, full body, over the top, prune flavors in the wine. None of the subtle elegance that a classic food friendly wine can and should provide. My taste buds, my preference, your opinion may vary. 

This article, in the New York times by Eric Asimov, which was forwarded to me by multiple friends, does a much better job describing the style of wine I am talking about. It also includes a list of wineries producing some of these classically elegant wines.

Back to my post, just like sugar, high alcohol wines, can bring me crashing down 30 minutes later and wanting for a more balanced wine.