Monday, September 12, 2011

A Superpower Palate For Grapes

I've never had the experience of tasting "chocolate" in wine, which is to say the society of grands chevaliers du vin from Burgundy are not aggressively recruiting me to join their group, quel domage. However, my superpower palate for tasting grapes may qualify me for the next edition of X-Men (in which I prevent the "terrioristas" from injecting salt into Napa Valley's water table and save the grapes). Our beloved instructor and mentor Lum Eisenman once told us in class that with about 20 or so years of experience we would be able to walk among rows of vines and determine by tasting individual grapes if the vineyard was ready for harvest or not. (Been there, done that, most notably during a pick three years ago when I was sampling Brunello berries from the vine and was astonished that the brix were low, which was confirmed once we took measurements back in the lab). Two years ago when we purchased grapes from Val de Guadeloupe, Mexico, when I munched on some grapes my first reaction was, "These are salty."  Our mentor Pete Anderson remarked, "Some people are able to taste the brine, others aren't.  You've got that sense". Not only could I taste the salt in the grapes, I can taste it in finished wine from those grapes (even when professional winemakers using those same grapes claim they were able to cold soak the salt out of them -- not so, in my opinion).

Under the full harvest moon this evening Bluey and I picked a random sample of 50 Aglianico grapes, squeezed them in a baggie and poured the juice into a shot glass and sipped. Not quite ready for picking, I guessed, and the refractometer confirmed that with a reading of 23 brix (a measure of sugar).  We're shooting for higher. But I could feel the acid on the tongue and tickling my glands and thought that it's just a little high, but still a nice acid and will make for a good puckery wine.

My benchmark for acid in wine is the Cabernet produced by Chateau Montelena.  Mind you I don't buy this wine, but I enjoy winning it in bets from Celestial Sandra and Coyote Karen, and this wine is the best I've had in recent memory which, despite being 10+ years in age is still has robust fruit, and, to borrow a phrase from wine connoisseur Bill Clinton, "It's the acid, stupid!"

I went into the winery and sampled the Tempranillo now in its third day of cold soak. The fruit is delicious, but it lacked the puckeriness of that Aglianico juice I had tasted a few minutes before.  The Tempranillo checked in at 25+ brix with a high pH just below 4 and an acid level below .45 .  I was considering blending some high acid wine that we held back from the year before, but at the end of the day decided to do a modest addition of tartaric acid to raise the acidity to approximately .60  .  I added the acid, stirred, then tasted. You didn't need to be an X-Men to notice the difference, and improvement, immediately.

Taste varies widely from person to person, and there are no objective standards. What I like, you may not, and vice versa. What has been your experience tasting grapes (or wine) and what are you able to detect?


Rudy said...

I believe that a grape is only really ripe enough when the seeds get brown.
Rudy, somogyharsagy, Hungary

Craig Justice said...

Rudy, egeshegerra! Agreed! Brown seeds are something we look for, and we crunch them in our mouth and taste them.

Norbert S.P. said...

This would be a good time to add to another argument about added sugars. If you can taste that the acid level is at its peak "compared to sugar" and the prevailing weather is apt to reduce the acid without adding much sugar (to whatever fruit in question), harvest immediately and go ahead and add sugar. If you have acquired a required taste for a fruit, such as a pear, for consumption, you would find that the wine made from it will match that flavor, but only for a short time. It will go flat in 2 months in some cases. Acid is more crucial than the sugar. I suspect rules against adding sugar have more to do with fears about having too much alcohol in a product rather than any issue with overall product quality. I have made pear wine from "hard" pears that required two years to age while soft sweet pear wines has gone flat in weeks.