Picking based upon sugar levels, or an exercise in total stupidity

jeff-smby Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

While reading through my usual list of blogs for Good Reads Wednesday, I got led to this post: The Problem with ‘Physiological Ripeness” by Paul Lukacs.  It can be found at:


The following quote sums up the sum and substance of this article:

Perhaps when that happens, vintners will return to common sense and admit that seeds, skins, and pulp have little to do with ripeness, which as everyone has known ever since Antoine Lavoisier proved it so, refers to the appropriate concentration of sugar in the fruit–no more and no less.

In a minute, I’ll get around to my objections to the substance of the article. But before I turn to that subject, I think there is a question that needs to be asked: “Has this guy ever grown even one grape?”

To try to satisfy myself on that point, I googled the author’s name, and while I could find that he had written several books related to wine, I could find no evidence that he has actually engaged in the subject that this post is about, namely, growing grapes.

I will grant that you don’t need to know how to grow a grape in order to drink a wine. Or, to render an opinion as to the quality of the wine that you’ve just drunk.

But it’s one thing to consume a wine, and something else altogether to make one.

Aside from the lack of any indication on my Google search that Mr. Lukacs has ever grown a grape, the content of this post would seem to confirm my suspicion.

So let me turn to the post itself.

The gist of the post is that vintners should be guided by the sugar level of the grapes rather than other factors such as the condition of the seeds, skins, and pulp. Which, as I’ve quoted above, Mr.Lukacs feels has nothing to do with ripeness.

Not sure exactly how to describe Mr. Lukacs’ view. A few words jump to mind, however: “crazy, nuts, insane”.

I don’t think any vintner or grower would say that sugar levels are irrelevant. But there are lots of things that factor into sugar levels that really have nothing to do with the ripeness of the grape. As just one example, since sugar levels are determined simply by the ratio of sugar to water in the grape, as water content declines (as, for example, as a result of a heat wave), the sugar levels will rise. Conversely, as the water level in the grape rises (as would result from an irrigation), the sugar level will decline. Neither a short heat wave nor an irrigation is going to reflect much on the ripeness of the grape, though it will certainly affect sugar levels.

For various reasons (or for no particularly discernible reason) sugar levels can vary from year to year in ways that don’t correlate with the ripeness of the grape in other respects.

Certainly, there is a lot of variation in harvest sugar levels from one grape variety to another, from one site to another, from one clone to another, and pretty much from one of anything else to another. Whether, and to what extent, these changes in sugar level reflect changes in grape ripeness is often not at all clear.

So it is entirely possible to end up with a grape that, when you measure the brix, seems just fine. But that grape can have green seeds, tough skins, and bitter unpleasant flavors.

If you harvest that grape, you’re going to get a wine redolent of green peppers, super high in acidity, with tight green tannins. Now, if that’s how you like your wines, all is good.

But if you prefer (as I and almost everybody else does) a wine that reminds you of fruit rather than veggies, then picking that field is a big mistake.

Lukacs seems to feel that the switch to making harvest decisions based on physiological ripeness of the grape has led to the phenomenon which we are all too aware of, the increasing ripeness of grapes at harvest which results in higher alcohol, lower acid, “floozy” wines. But it’s a mistake to confuse the measuring stick (whether it be physiological ripeness or sugar level) with what you are measuring, i.e., the ripeness of the grape. There is no question that there is a wide variety of opinions among growers and vintners as to when a vineyard is ready to be picked. Some, who seek a lighter, more elegant, style, will pick sooner than others who seek a more powerful, concentrated style. There is no right or wrong – – there is just personal preference.

But whether you want a lighter or a more powerful style, to rely upon sugar levels as your measuring stick makes no sense. Focusing on physiological ripeness does not require you to pick late anymore than focusing on sugar levels requires you to pick early. If you are seeking a lighter style, then you will tolerate a few more green seeds, a somewhat crunchier skin, etc. etc. You will almost certainly seek higher levels of acidity, which has little to do with sugar level.

But if you rely, instead, on a test of, say, 21 brix sugar at harvest, then instead of getting the lighter, more elegant style that you sought, you may end up with something that is simply repugnant.

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