Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Syrah BRIX at harvest, or Jim Barr, why must you pick your grapes so late?

Photo courtesy of Tablas Creek's blog

Not to out him, or shame him, but Jim Barr, my (mostly) respectable colleague insists that his Sonoma (forget exactly where in Sonoma) Syrah grapes must be picked at 24 brix or above. That way, the seed is likely to be nice and brown, or "physiologically ripe." They have already achieved "sugar ripenes." That happens first in warmer, sunnier wine growing regions. California, even in the so-called cool, Type I climate growing zones, is a warmer, sunnier growing region. The harvest was 3-4 weeks later than usual, and the pH of the grapes around 3.40. All exciting things, says Barr.

Barr knows grapes, he knows winemaking and, occasionally, he even knows wine (joking, Jim). He has been making wine for around thirty years. He is also a creature of habit - to put it mildly - and I imagine that he looks for these indicators in his grapes year in, year out. However, I know for a fact that Barr really enjoys more moderate alcohol wines, Loire reds, for example. Nonetheless, he insists that if his grapes aren't "physiologically ripe," i.e. brown pips, his wines will not only be hard, but bitter as well.

I'm no winemaker. Never tried it. In fact, I might as well come clean and admit that I've never even helped to harvest. Hell, you know what, I just taste, spit and judge wine for a living professionally. I much prefer maker's and coke... All joking aside, I come across more and more California wines from growers who purposefully pick earlier than their neighbors (see Hirsch Pinot Noir in the Sonoma Coast). Another example would be the terrifically balanced, fresh tasting 2007 Bartolo Minerva, a southern France by-way-of Santa Clara County inspired blend of Mourvedre, Syrah and Grenache, all heat loving grapes that typically do need to be ripe enough so that they ferment to at least 14%...except this particular wine comes in at an amazingly low 12.5%! Both of these are examples of wines that I would say do show ripe phenolics (in other words, they come from physiologically ripe grapes) and do not show green, astringent tannins.

I know this topic is oft discussed, maybe people are sick of it, possibly rightfully so. But I'd like to ask a few winemakers some questions:

What's the lowest brix you think California Syrah can be picked at to taste good? How much earlier would you estimate the harvest date would be than that of Syrah picked at 24.5?

The lowest brix that southern Rhone or Languedoc-Roussillon syrah can be harvested to still be good? Northern Rhone? How ripe are Allemand's syrah grapes? What about Chave's? Guigal's La La syrah grapes?

For a great post on ripeness, with a similarly educational thread to match, might I suggest you check out this June 2009 post from the Brooklyn Guy.