“Oh please, oh please, oh please.” That was the tagline to my Facebook post asking friends to join me at a Rhone wine tasting event last Saturday in Oakland at Campovida Wines. It worked! I had a tasting companion who made the event all the more enjoyable. This was a North Coast Rhone Rangers’ event – that’s a regional chapter of the national group Rhone Rangers, as you would imagine. And we tasted all that you would imagine at such an event: Syrah Grenache, Mouvedre, Viognier, etc. BTW, of the 22 traditional grape varieties that can be grown in the Rhone, France, 12 are grown domestically. I believe that all 12 were represented at the tasting with Syrah and Grenache leading the way. Wineries pouring that day included Campovida (hosted the event in Oakland), Carica Wines, Burt Street Cellars, Pax Mahle Wines, Quivira, Two Shepherds, Davis Family Wines, Ridge Vineyards, Lightning Wines, Campesino Cellars, Cornerstone Cellars, Skylark Wine Company, Crux Winery, Field Family Cellars, and Bonny Doon Vineyards – the last two were guests of the chapter.
Word on the vine is at one time people thought Syrah was to be the next big grape in California, maybe a contender that could take on Cabernet Sauvignon? But it never really took off. Why? One theory is that American consumers found it too “spicy.” Who knows what truly eclipsed its rise.
In any event, the Rhone varieties are diverse, versatile and simply fantastic in the hands of a skilled winemaker. My companion and I discovered we had very different tastes in wine with him favoring more “weight” We reached agreement that the Grenache Gris made by Two Shepherds was a nice surprise – a new variety to both of us and done so well by a winery with a philosophy of “old world, minimalist, authentic.” We also agreed on the sheer magic of Bonny Doon Vineyard’s 2010 Reserve Le Cigare Volant. Here is what I found on the winery’s website about this unique bottle:
This special cuvée of Le Cigare Volant is identical to our normale bottling but, owing to its unorthodox élevage, appears quite different in its presentation. After a short tenure in barrel, assemblage and completion of malolactic fermentation, the wine was removed to 5-gallon glass carboys (bonbonnes), where it reposed sur lie for 20 months. This practice yields a rare degree of integration and complexity, plus a preternatural degree of savoriness.
That particular wine had 13.3% alcohol – super! Which bring me to the subject of today’s post – what’s all this talk about brix? Simply put brix is a way to measure sugar content which then predicts alcohol content. Most grapes are harvested between 21 and 25 Brix. Ripeness is the key – you don’t want to pick under-ripe or green grapes; it’s all about picking them at the right time and a grower will have a refractometer handy to measure the percentage of Brix. One winery shared the grape harvest story of the knock on the door at 3 am with the call to action: “It’s time!” Still, I was surprised by the alcohol content of some of the wines – a few could handle the alcohol because they were expertly made but with others (and thankfully only a few), it was a case of “feel the burn.” We got different explanations about determining ripeness and managing sugar/alcohol levels. Confusing.
Later I found this note on the Wine Spectator website:
Polyphenolic Ripeness: Also known as physiological ripeness, is the concentration of polyphenols in grape skins, seeds and stems, in contrast to the traditional form of measuring ripeness based on sugar content (Brix, Baumé, Oechsle). It has become a trend among vintners to rely more on polyphenolic ripeness than on sugar levels in recent years, as polyphenols are the source of wine’s color, flavor and mouthfeel. As grapes mature, particularly in warmer climates, sugar levels frequently rise faster than polyphenol concentrations. Leaving grapes on the vine longer to achieve polyphenolic ripeness has led to an increase in alcohol levels due to higher sugar contents, particularly in California.
That’s it! Now I understand the problem and there is a (perhaps too) simple cure: bring back the old standard – pay attention to sugar content to determine ripeness and when the sugar content says “It’s time!” then go knock on a door. 😉 It would do my soul good.