Monday, August 22, 2011

Oregon: A Refuge from Over Ripening

Ok so the title of this post is obviously sarcasm, but there is some truth to it. Especially in the Willamette Valley. Wine grape growing in Oregon is a challenge. The single biggest factor to affect the quality of the wine is the quality of the grapes in it. It is an often repeated saying, but good wine is made in the vineyard. That is not to put the entirety of the growing season on the vineyard manager though, weather is what determines the baseline of a growing season. Not everyone in Oregon will choose to use organic chemicals, or to machine harvest, but every region will be subjected to similar weather patterns. Freezing in April, rain in July, rot in October, these are all things that can and will happen to event the most manicured vineyard.

Winemakers typically track 4 things during maturation of grapes; the pH, titratable acidity, degrees Brix, and eventually the taste and feel of the berry. The challenge in Oregon winemaking and grape growing is hitting your picking window perfectly. A grapevine is intentionally stressed, a lot of vineyards in Oregon choose not to irrigate and instead let the taproots do the work. This is because the happiest grapevine is not necessarily the best wine producing one. The plant must be scared into thinking conditions aren't ideal and reproduction is a necessity. This causes a very thirsty plant by the end of ripening.

Winemakers must base there pick time off three factors, physical ripeness, crushing schedule (big wineries must sometimes pick early or late simply because they have no other time to process the fruit), and weather. No one wants the weather to determine the pick time because then the winemaker is out of control and must begin to gamble. Will more rain come? The second rain hits the ground it is absorbed by the vine and sugar and acidity levels begin to dilute. This will set off a chain reaction of actions and decisions which are designed to mitigate the fact that we live in a very hard place to grow grapes.

Why would dropping sugar levels be concerning to a winemaker? Yeast ferment sugars into carbon dioxide and ethanol, less sugar means less alcohol, more sugar means more alcohol. We try and achieve a balance between acid, sweetness, and bitterness in the wine. Bitterness can be controlled by the alcohol level, and there is a base alcohol that needs to be present in order for the wine to taste like a wine. It is therefore essential that we achieve a minimum sugar concentration within the grape juice before it becomes wine.

This post is geared more towards American wine in general, so California must enter the discussion. Some of the more revered regions in California enjoy completely different weather patters. While our cool and mild climate is conducive to Pinots, the dry heat and long summers of California are great for bigger reds like Cab and Syrah. Californian winemakers have the opposite problem that we do: too much sun. This is reflected in laws about what can be added to grape must. In Oregon, it is legal to add sugar directly to the must the increase degrees Brix before fermentation. In California, they must do the opposite and dilute the must down to a more agreable level (both for the yeast and the consumer). Huge, ripe crops are almost a guarantee in California, and part of the reason that Napa vineyard land is some of the most expensive in the world.

So why does all of this matter?

I received a comment to a post talking about giving up on American wine due to our usual problem: too much excess. Over sweet, and high alcohol were some of the typical descriptors used to describe American wine, and that hurts. I do not feel that this problem is linked to American wine in general, just certain regions and certain techniques that have been glorified to a point of distaste. I also have faith in economics, if American wine was being held back by over ripening and excess sugars, the market should have naturally compensated. Perhaps it is beginning to?

In most of the regions in Oregon, 15% alcohol is simply not achievable in a normal year. Based on recent trends, we are more likely to be under ripe. This leads to a berry which is higher in acid and lower in sugar. Our pinot gris should have a sweetness to it, but what really drives it home with consumers is the well balanced acid. That is no accident, we use the tools, or terroir, that the region gives us. So if you are in search of a different style of wine, I would recommend looking at a different region. As the industry grows winemakers are trying to explore every possible climate and soil they can offer to their vines, and with some excellent results.


  1. We've almost given up on west coast wines because the alcohol levels have gone from 12-13% in the 90s to well over that nowadays. Maybe Oregon isn't up to 15%, but even at 13.5% a wine can feel pretty strong, especially as most modern wines are extremely sweet. (They always warn you about sweet cocktails because they pack more kick than dry ones.) I think you can compute the Parker score for a wine by adding the alcohol level and the sugar level and multiplying by some factor.

    I think a lot of Americans like extremely sweet and highly alcoholic wines. We've cut back on our buying and look for French, Spanish or New York State wines with saner alcohol levels and which taste like wine, not sugar. I think there is some counter-reaction as the discretionary wine market is weakening, and there are lots of cheap C2H5OH+sugar wines out there. Wineries that want to charge a premium, however, will need to adapt. One market that has been underserved is the lower alcohol and drier style market.

  2. Well my first question to you would be what kind of wine are you typically drinking? White or Red? Stylistically, a red wine should always be dry. If it is not, there was an error in the winemaking. I'm not saying sweet flavors cannot emerge from a dry red wine, Napa Zinfindel comes to mind immediately, but the big overripe styles found in California don't really dominate here. I can tell you that 100% of the wines we make from Oregon rank in the 12-13.5% alcohol range. I know that for sure because the TTB requires a higher tax class for 14%+ alcohol wines, something we definitely want to avoid. I cannot dispute the sugar levels in a white wine, but again this is done for balance. We have tried going completely dry on our pinot gris, and it just doesn't taste right (and completely dry means higher alc if sugar levels are manipulated purely by arresting fermentations). And considering the market share that we have gained with this wine (it is our flagship), consumers agree, at least somewhat, that we are making the right decision.

    Now you could dispute that by saying we are making wine out of the fastest growing varietal in the US (the Rick Perry argument) but I stand behind it 100%, and I am debating emailing privately to send you a bottle. I think American wines offer a completely different take on winemaking style, extending well beyond alc/sweetness balance, that begs to be explored. We do not bottle Brett, cleanliness and modern winemaking are paramount, and there is much more of a paranoia towards anything blended. It sounds like you may be on the east coast (New York State wines) but if you have not explored Oregon wines, I would greatly encourage you to experiment with some of our Pinot Noirs and Gris, the highest scoring one in the nation comes from this state and we take significant pride in it.

    As for the Parker scores, I have to say thank you again for inspiring me to write another post. It will be up soon.