The decision when to harvest is one of the defining decisions in the making of a wine. As calm as the long grape-growing season seems, the harvest is a short, intense period when the wine’s destiny is decided. Sugar content is rising rapidly. Phenolic compounds are ripening. Acidity is disappearing. Small differences in hang time can make a huge difference in the character of the wine produced.
Wine critics are generally assumed to prefer wines that are big, fruity and immediately accessible. The Internet is rife with the belief that…
The taste preferences of the top wine critics have been carefully studied, and wine styles all over the world have been changed to suit their palates. Many European winemakers will proudly show you their “Parker cuvée” — a wine souped up to the extremely overripe, high-alcohol, triply oaked style that Robert M. Parker Jr. (of the Wine Advocate) prefers.
Parker, of course, denies either a preference for big, unsubtle wines or that winemakers are crafting special blends just for his taste buds. Still, the conventional wisdom is that bigger, fruitier and more immediately accessible wines score higher. Those scores, in turn, influence wine consumers, who gravitate to 90-point wines, sure, but whose taste in wine is increasingly defined by what the critical definition of quality.
The tendency among winemakers, working in that environment, is naturally to harvest later, perhaps by just a few days, to let the sugar and phenols ripens just a bit more and move their wine more toward the critical sweet spot.
That decision, according to Kieth Wallace, writing at The Daily Beast, means that many fine wines collecting dust in cellars are going to die long before they’re consumed.
While this longer hang time creates wines with mass appeal, it affects wines on a fundamental chemical level. “pH levels were quite lower 20 years ago, worldwide. Our concern is that oxidation will be more rapid at these higher pH levels.” (Dr. Roger Boulton of the Department of Viticulture and Enology at University of California at Davis) continues. pH may not be as sexy as tannins or fruit or acidity, but it determines how long a wine can develop before it degrades into what is basically vinegar.
The gripe about low acidity is not new. It’s one of the reason why velvety Cabs, for example, are thought to be food-unfriendly, and there have certainly been those who’ve questioned the age-worthiness of some of the most expensive wines modern winemaking produces. What’s interesting about Wallace’s piece is that the lowering of acidity appears to be a worldwide phenomenon, even in regions thought dedicated to traditional winemaking.
Which means, according to Wallace, that
Instead of a high Wine Spectator rating being the the litmus test for a wine, perhaps an actual litmus test is the better method to stock your wine cellar.
If you’re collecting wines based on their high scores, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment. By implication, you may be better off collecting wines that score lower, but will age longer. Adopting a selective 88-point strategy will likely save you a few bucks, too.