Just pick earlier!


Just pick earlier!

ripeness pick earlier

I had a remarkable tasting a few weeks ago with Marcelo Papa of Concha y Toro. He did an experiment: picking some of the grapes for Marques de Casa Concha a month earlier than they are currently picked. He says that he had to close his eyes when he looked at the seeds: they were still green. The wine was brilliant. So much so that he’s now picking everything a month earlier than normal. I tried the results: normally I find Marques de Casa Concha to be a bit boring and Chilean. The early picked version? I’m going to buy some when it’s released. It’s proper wine. He says he has to use far fewer oenological products in the winery, because the yeasts are much happier. I’ll be writing this interview up in full, but I wanted to mention it here, because I am going to make a plea to winemakers around the world:

Please, just pick earlier.

This fad for picking by taste, waiting for ‘phenolic ripeness’, and waiting for brown seeds is just nuts. Look at the fabulous wines coming from the In Pursuit of Balance wineries in California. Some of these are at 12% alcohol. From California. And they are brilliant.

I recently went to a US Cabernet tasting put on by the Institute of Masters of Wine. It was an incredible line-up of 88 wines, including most of the big names. But it was quite depressing in that so few of these wines showed freshness and definition. Most were picked too late. Alcohol levels were frequently far too high. And these wines are almost all REALLY expensive.

It is so depressing to see red wines routinely at 14.5% or 15% alcohol – or even higher – because they are rarely any good. Pick too late, and you end up with a wine that doesn’t express its site very well. You end up with struggling ferments, and an increased risk of Brettanomyces. Your wine becomes a more powerful solvent for extracting flavour from the oak. You lose structure and acidity, and you end up having to add acid and use oak to provide structure.

Why not just pick earlier?

10 Comments on Just pick earlier!
wine journalist and flavour obsessive

10 thoughts on “Just pick earlier!

  1. I agree 200% with you about alcohol levels and lack of finesse on the kind of wines you mention and in many other cases. but, picking earlier is not always the perfect choice, each vineyard is a different cas, you know that better than anyone. You only mention one exemple and then generalize, suggesting that everyone else do the same. My question is: do you mean phenolic ripeness is just a “fad” and unnecessary ? Or are you just talking new world super hot climates?

  2. Which vintage was the Casa Concha? Really interesting that they’re doing this. I visited Chile earlier in the year and struggled for most of the week with the lack of freshness in the reds – lots of the Chardonnay and Sauvignon were fine but the reds were largely flat.

    Then we visited Ventisquero in Apalta and suddenly there were wines with vibrancy and freshness – not totally universal – and I have to say that I think their top ‘icon’ wine is too ripe and extracted – they have a small range of ‘icon’ wines from different grapes and selections and their least expensive ‘Vertice’ was for me the best of the bunch – (less than half the price of Enclave) I suspect that they just didn’t try quite as hard with it….. Grey Syrah is another from them I’ve enjoyed – some friends didn’t like it because it was fresh not ripe and jammy – which says it for me…. But Chile has other issues too.. they are making progress but it’s going to take a long time because there is both a degree of entrenchment with some of the more established names and a degree of not knowing what they should be doing yet.

  3. “It is not hard to learn more. What is hard is to unlearn when you discover yourself wrong.” – Martin H. Fisher

  4. Multiple picking dates is also a great way to add complexity and acidity to wine. I have been in Argentina for a few years now and not only are they picking so late that all of their wines are over the top inky dark alcohol laden mouthfuls of fruit, they are all tragically similar. Don’t get me wrong, the wines are good, but they are universally acidified, and week after week in my blind tastings, Cabernet, Malbec, Syrah, they too rarely have any expression of place or varietal.

    Wines, around the world, have fallen into the trap of trying to taste good for the few sips it takes to rate them, and not for the length of the bottle. Wines should be made to be happily consumed, not just tasted.

  5. It’s a little simplistic to label all wines at 14.5-15% abv ‘high’ and that it’s depressing to witness. Chianti Classico at 14.5%? No thanks. Chateauneuf, and other Grenache based wines at the same alcohol levels is a completely different kettle of fish. Balance is balance. Looking at the alcohol level on a label and making a judgement about the wine is short sighted.

  6. Isn’t early picking a very crude solution to a fundamental problem: growing winegrapes in climates that are simply too hot?

  7. I might sit on the fence a bit on this one. I recently tasted several Bierzo, Toro and Ribera del Duero wines and often for me I end up prefering the lower tier “Roble” 2 years old 6 months in oak type wines, as they seem honest, solid and appealling whereas the riper icon wines from 80 year old blocks often seem too stewy and oaky. So I agree there.

    I am also happy drinking fresh 12% alcohol reds: Loire, red Vinho verde etc and no doubt would enjoy this Chilean or some of the new wave Argentine Malbecs.

    Saying that I think an awful lot of people over the last decade, myself included, have enjoyed wines like old-school Barossa Shiraz, “normal” Argie Malbecs, Chilean Cabs, Napa Cabs etc. etc. so I think for one critic to ask “winemakers around the world: Please, just pick earlier” is too much of a generalisation and could end up putting a few people’s noses out of joint. One thing is fashion and what critics like to drink and another is what people want and (seem) happy to drink. It’s an interesting question: Do critics have the right to tell “winemakers around the world” what they should be doing?

  8. Quite interesting! considering it was the preferences of the press that pushed wine styles to higher alcohols in the first place. Alcohol levels are much more complex an issue than just harvest sugar levels. eg. more efficient conversion sugar to alcohol now than yeast technology used in the past.

    So everything old is new again.

  9. Pick it earlier? Oh, if it were that simple.

    In my opinion the high alcohol is not necessarily the only factor if a wine if flat or boring as keeping the alcohol low will not automatically result vibrant and exciting wines.

    To find the optimal timing of the harvest is a rather difficult thing. The grape type, soil type, exposure, yearly rain and sun all bring small or big factor to the game.

    I myself believe in multiple or continuous picking.

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