The New Four-Letter Word: Ripe

The wine industry’s new four letter word is ripe.

Listen to any vintner or winemaker talk about their style of wine, and no matter what that style actually is, the resulting wine is said to be the result of grapes picked when they were ripe. The four letter word is now strewn over back labels, imbedded in tech sheets, and threaded through press releases. Ripeness, it seems, is not only what everyone wants; it’s also what everyone gets out of their grapes.

But there’s got to be something wrong when wineries from Pouilly Fumé to Paso Robles all claim the same singular physiological state.

To compare a large group of wines shows just how intellectually specious the claims of ripeness have become. During a recent tasting of 52 California chardonnays in my office, it was clear that winemakers interpret ripeness in vastly different ways. Yet they all use the same word. If nothing else, that’s misleading.

Even more troublesome: ripeness is now used to imply high quality (“we only pick the grapes when they are ripe”). As such, ripeness serves as a master justification for all kinds of wines—from vin very ordinaire on up. In my own experience, the wineries who play the ripeness card most often are also the wineries for whom overripe has become the new ripe.

So what’s going on here? Is ripeness a singular thing?

I decided to ask Carole Meredith PhD, Professor Emeritus of the Viticulture and Enology Department at the University of California at Davis. Meredith, a geneticist, is best known as one of the scientists who pioneered the technique for analyzing the DNA of grapevines.

“No, ripeness is not a singular state,” said Meredith. “Far from it.”

She went on: “From the wild grapevine’s perspective, ripeness is when the grapes are sufficiently sweet to attract a bird or fox or raccoon to eat the fruit and then excrete the seeds, thus propagating the species. And by the time the fruit is that sweet, the seeds are fully developed and capable of germinating to produce a seedling. From the winemaker’s perspective, the grapes are ripe when the winemaker thinks they’re ripe. It’s a judgement call and it means that the grapes have reached the point at which they have the combination of sugar, acid, tannins, flavors that the winemaker is looking for. Fruit ripening is a process, not a specific point in time.”

I propose then, this idea: Let’s begin to talk about ripeness as a range. In my own writing, the metaphor I like to use is a clock. Wines like Pouilly Fumé are picked a few minutes before high noon. They are on the ascent to ripeness. Some wines in some vintages (warm vintages in cool places; cool vintages in warm places) hit high noon precisely. Other wines like Paso Robles zinfandel are usually a few minutes past high noon. They are on a descent from ripeness.

Either wine can be attractive, delicious and satisfying. But they are not equally ripe.

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