Grape ripeness

Oenophilic legerdemain works winery wonders, but good wine remains what happens in the dirt and on the trestle and inside the vine.

When fruit is good, winemaker sorcery soars. When berries are merely bearable, magic can only mask or compensate for problems, not conjure perfection.

Bottom line: better the grape, better the wine.

Ripeness is essential, identifying ripeness a challenge. Ripeness starts with sweetness (usually measured as brix). So, measure sugar concentration, and when it hits right brix number (usually 23-28), harvest. This is wine, so of course it could never be that simple or coldly scientific as that.

For starters, not all berries in a cluster have the same brix number, much less do all the clusters on a vine or in a vineyard have the same brix number at the same time.

Then there is New World problem where abundant sunlight allows sugar levels to spike before other components—seeds, skin, acidity—are ready. Wine makers must target “physiological ripeness.”
 Winemakers want skins to provide a hint of tartness. They are happy with sugary flesh just under the skin, but they also want some firmness and less sweetness next to the seed, otherwise the wine can be simple, even cloyingly sweet. They want mature seeds to provide tannins essential to aging and playing well with food. They do not want seeds that are too green, which produces a vegetal flavor.

Grapes are little bitty things. Each one is slightly different, even in same cluster. Making wine is easy; anyone with sugary fruit juice and some yeast and some time can pull it off. Making good wine is harder. Great wine almost a miracle. Something to remember when you pull a cork or twist a cap tonight.

Tasting notes:

• Caprock Winery Knuckle Bump 2011. Mostly cab franc with merlot & petite verdot; cherry, chocolate, licorice; Texas value-for-price play. $11

• La Crema Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2011. Clean-almost austere, sharp, dry, bright; citrus edges, green & yellow apple; low oak, bit of butter. $16

• MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir Central Coast. Delicately delicious, balanced acidity/tannin; raspberry, cherry, cola; princely pinot for the price. $16

• Don Miguel Gascón Colosal Red Blend 2012. Dark cherry, plum, black & blue berry, chocolate, mint, some oak; mild tannin; big crowd-pleaser. $15

Last round: Wine does not make you fat. It makes you lean. Against floors, tables, walls, people.