Ripeness: The New “Great Wine” Paradigm

Think about it…

Do you buy wine with the idea of keeping it and letting it age and mature into something different, something delicious?

Better yet, do you drink much wine older than ten years?

It’s highly likely you answered "No" to both these questions. But don’t feel bad. You’re in good company. It turns out that most CA vintners don’t give much consideration to aging wine either.

This is one of the issues I’ve been thinking about as I’ve had the opportunity to consider of late the trend toward higher alcohol in wine. Make no mistake. That trend has enveloped the wine industry. A recent article in Wine Business Monthly outlined the continued rise in alcohol levels in CA wines from 1971 to 2001. Here’s a snippet:

1971: 12.5%
1975: 13.3%
1981: 13.7%
1995: 13.9%
1997: 14.4%
1999: 14.6%
2001: 14.8%

What’s not always mentioned is that with higher alcohols comes lower pH levels. A measure of the wine’s acidity, rising pH levels in wine over the years has indicated continuously lower levels of acidity in wine. And with lower pH levels comes a lesser and lesser chance the wine will age and mature gracefully, rather than simply falling apart.

Vintners know this.

So do wine critics and writers.

Yet it seems that the desire to craft bigger and riper wines, along with the fear of including ANY "green" aromas or flavors in wine today have led the wine world to forgo the desire to make or buy or recommend wines likely to age into that uncommon animal: a mature and complex, well aged, intellectually interesting wine.

What we are going through is a style revolution. It’s a bit of a paradigm change actually. Fine wine is fast becoming defined by its ability to gratify immediately, when youthful, when darkest, when most intense. "Fine Wine" has been known by a different description for most of the 20th century. It was something showed the potential to thrill us in the future or thrill us by being around long enough to let us look back into the past through a well aged wine. It should be no surprise that while the great wine connoisseurs of the 1930s through the 1990s exalted their Roses and blushed over fresh Beaujolais, they only bestowed the title of "Great" upon Burgundy and Bordeaux. These were the wines that were capable of aging and maturing and changing for upwards of 10 to 50 years.

What has caused the new paradigm in California wine? That’s tricky.

It’s almost as though a Perfect Storm of circumstances have swelled up in the wine industry at the same time that served to change the view of great wine to one defined by ripeness as well as reinforce each other, making each of these forces even stronger:

1. The arc of viticultural knowledge and the understanding of the CA terroir over the past three decades have made growers better at getting grapes ripe and flavorful. Nearly all the lessons learned have demonstrated how to get grapes riper and more flavorful

2. This new breed of riper CA wine easier to enjoy in it’s youth than the earlier generation of CA wines. They are softer, fruitier, sweeter.

3. Critics took to these wines like children to candy. They’d discovered a style of wine that was not "imitation Bordeaux". This sense of Independence is emboldening. It’s something you can champion. And they have.

4. The rise of the 100 Point scale slowly but inevitably became a "Ripeness Scale", making it easier to communicate the ripeness level of a given wine.

5. A rash of new wine drinkers hit the market just as this new definition of greatness was coming into vogue and when Merlot was the new hot red. Their introduction to wine coincided with a decided softening of drink and a criticism that hailed it. These new drinkers liked what they were getting and being told and they wanted more.

6. The market conspired to encourage vintners to make wine to match the Soft-Big-Alcoholic framework. From consumers to distributors, a call for this new style of wine was loud and vintners heard. It became clear that if you made a wine that was highly ripe, deeply extracted and softer to the touch you were better able to satisfy the desires of the wine sellers who now were fully accepting of the new definition of "greatness, a well as the consumers who liked what they were drinking, reading about and finding placed on the shelves and wine lists by the trade.

These are the cultural factors that led to the fact that you likely don’t drink well aged wine nor buy wine to age. The impact of this has spread to the Old World too where the trend is also toward Bigger and Riper. Yet there are more than cultural and stylistic reason for this paradigm shift. Technical issues relating to the health of the vineyards, new types of clones, new yeast strains as well as others seem to have conspired to help bring on the Age of Ripeness. And some even suggest that global warming has played a part in the switch from Balance to Ripeness.

Right now you can still find CA wines from the 1970s and 1980s that have undergone the change that vintners rarely imagine these days. You can find wines, the best of the vintage obviously, that will demonstrate what once allowed ageabiltiy to be a critical factor in the definition of "greatness". They are expensive however as they are fairly rare now.

I don’t want to suggest that there are no wines being made today nor any vintners making wine today for which ageabilty is a key factor. There are some. However, most will not be publicized or lauded. You’ll have to work to find them if you choose to take that path. But make no mistake, that path is pretty barren right now. Not many trodding along looking for something ethereal with ten or twenty years  in the bottle. You’ll be fairly lonely.

Posted In: Wine Business


8 Responses

  1. Mark - October 24, 2005

    Tom: Fine post. I’m finding increasing numbers of California wines that deliver blockbuster flavors at first sip (reds from Paso Robles and Santa Barbara come to mind) but then simply become tiresome to drink through a meal. They don’t blossom, but instead become clunky and one-dimensional. And too often, that one dimension is alcohol. Will these wines age gracefully? I hope so, but I suspect not. Hope I’m wrong.

  2. Mike - October 25, 2005

    Do you have the link to the recent article in Wine Business Monthly on alcohol levels?

  3. Tom Wark - October 25, 2005

    As yet it is not posted on their website:

  4. Andy Brandt - October 25, 2005

    I wonder if your first item “The arc of viticultural knowledge and the understanding of the CA terroir over the past three decades have made growers better at getting grapes ripe and flavorful.” isn’t a major source of the problem. For example, in the Rhone, there are numerous head pruned vines. They ripen most years but not every year. In California, only a few growers continue with head pruning (or variations of it). Many use variations of the Guyot system which enables ripening without issue and, IMHO, over ripening The same goes with yield management – everyone seems to say less than “2 tons to the acre” assuming that means high quality. Perhaps the higher yields would lower sugar production without a decrease in quality.

  5. Terry Hughes - October 26, 2005

    This is a terrific post, because you have succinctly laid out all the major factors that have led to the current situation. A real public service.
    As to style of winemaking, if this is what everyone (almost) wants, fine. What kills me as a non-plutocrat is the cost of these wines, young and often unsubtle as they are. There’s something really out of kilter here, and it’s most evident in California as well as in Tuscany and a few other regions where the “dolce” new style has taknen hold.
    Tom, what I feel you’ve done is to reopen this debate on ripeness and alcohol levels in a really healthy way; ageworthiness seems like something of a side issue, although your concerns about the long-term effects of these trends on CA wines’ future development signals potential problems with quality perception that may cause the industry huge angst in the coming decade or two.
    Thanks for bringing this subject up in this manner.

  6. Terry Hughes - October 26, 2005

    Ugh. Sorry about that Teutonic sentence structure. I got lost!

  7. Tom Wark - October 26, 2005

    Thanks for reading the post. I’m not SO concerned about the high prices. As with anything else, a price is the pure sum of supply and demand. The price of many of these wines tells me the something about the wines.
    May of these $100 wines are made in very small quantities. And if yoiu can’t sell 100 cases of good $100 wine in a year, you really shouldn’t be allowed in the wine business.

  8. Terry Hughes - October 26, 2005

    True enough.
    I lament the fact that I can’t afford to taste them, however. Maybe there’s a highly specialized charity out there, sort of like the old British Society for Distressed Gentlefolk…

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