On Ripeness, Terroir and Great Red Wines

High quality red wines are made with high quality ripe grapes.

What is ripeness in terms of grapes intended for winemaking?

Traditionally the decision of harvesting was taken only after analysing sugar concentration, acidity and pH of the grape juice: this is the so called technological maturity (more or less the usual ripeness that you may think for  other table fruits).

However, grapes destined for winemaking (contrary to table grapes) need to meet another kind of maturity: the so called phenolic maturity (when skins have good and easily extractable color, and tannins become much less bitter).

The chemistry behind the process bringing grapes to technological and phenolic maturity is quite complex and explaining it is beyond the scope of this blog. Just keep in mind that the two maturities depend on many factors including grape variety, cultivar, weather conditions, soil composition, water availability, cultural practices, canopy management etc. 

In general, Great vintages and great terroirs (or just great terroirs if you prefer to include the vintage in the definition of terroir) allow the two maturities to happen more or less at the same time. In this case we have potential for great wines: great balance between acids/tannins/sugar/alcohol, lots of extractable components that will give rise to complex aromas, structure and long persistence in taste and great ageability. 
The simplified graph below is representative of this first case.




Bad terroirs (where e.g. the varietal is not well matched with soil and climate) and bad vintages will give rise to a mismatch between the two maturities. The simplified graph below is representative of a bad terroir (in which the varietal ripens too fast in terms of sugars) or a very hot vintage (in which the technological maturity happens much earlier than the phenolic one). This case will give wines with poor ageability, poor richness of flavors, poor complexity and persistence, or unbalanced levels of alcohol and low acidity. 



Moreover, the mismatch between the two maturity is increasing in many places on the planet as a consequence of climate changes: larger quantities of CO2, less rain and higher temperatures speed up the technological maturity too much with respect the phenolic one. Places that were growing Pinot Noir will be probably able to grow Zinfandel in few decades. Places that were growing Zinfandel, will be probably not suitable anymore for grape cultivation.  

Of course you can "correct" a bad terroir or vintage in the cellar (add sugar, add acids, remove water or alcohol with reverse osmosis, apply micro-oxigenation to improve structure). There is nothing "evil" with this, nothing wrong with this, it's just another school of thought. It all depends if you want to do an authentic ("Natural" approach) wine or the best wine you can "manufacture" (e.g. Modern and "Post-Modern" approach).

I like to think that, due to the extreme bio-chemical complexity involved in vine-growing and wine-making,  GREAT wines are made only by GREAT vineyards, not in GREAT cellars.  This does not mean, however, that VERY GOOD wines can't be made with advanced techniques even in sub-optimal vintages/terroirs.

FINAL (Open) Question: is Ripeness enough to give rise to great wines, wines that can stand against time? Or you need some other secret element? For example what about "minerality" (as discussed by Randall Grahm (here), or what about the presence of yeasts/bacteria in the bottled wines (they may help keeping alive the wine as well). What I mean is that the redox stability of a wine and its potential to gain 'complexity' with time can be achieved and maintained across years by many elements/factors and this is still something I have not clearly understood... 



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