By Jamie Goode | 1 February 2018

Back in October, Eben Sadie - one of South Africa's most well known winemakers - came to London to present a vertical of his wines, and talk about his journey, since he started out on his own 17 years ago. It's always interesting listening to Eben talk, because he's very thoughtful, and also quite humorous.


One of the main changes he's made to his winemaking over the years is a move to picking the grapes earlier. The decision about when to pick is one of the most significant that a winegrower has to make, and this is why ripeness is such an interesting topic. It's also a controversial topic in some circles.


Eben's earlier wines – he started making Columella in 2001 – were made in a riper style, and weighed in at close to 15% alcohol. They were very good wines (they made him famous, after all), but his latest release, 2015, is a degree lower at 13.9% alcohol, and it's better for it. One degree of alcohol may not seem like so much, but when it comes to ripening, as the grapes are left on the vine it isn't just the sugar level (and hence the alcohol, once the yeasts have converted this during fermentation) that changes. There's a lot more going on, and it really affects the flavour and character of the wine.


As grapes ripen, sugar accumulates and acid levels fall. At the same time, flavour compounds and their precursors (most flavour compounds in wine are made by yeasts) begin to accumulate, and tannins (chemicals produced by plants that have an astringent/bitter taste) change their form so that they are less astringent. If you make a red wine from grapes picked too early, then the wine will taste astringent, be light in colour, and will have high acidity. But if you pick too late, then the wine will have sweet, jammy fruit, it will lack structure, and it will taste flabby. Between each of these extremes, though, it's really up to the winegrower to choose when to pick.


Traditionally, in the classic European wine regions, over-ripeness was rarely an issue. The real issue was achieving adequate ripeness, but balancing this out with the risk of having to pick in the Autumn rains. Producers frequently had to pick earlier than they ideally wanted to because of the weather, and the best vintages were usually the warmer ones where sugar levels, and thus potential alcohol levels were the highest. Over-ripeness was rare. For this reason, picking was made on the basis of sugar accumulation, and as soon as the sugar levels were high enough, the grapes came in. Things began to change in the 1990s though, for a number of reasons.


First of all, along came the wine critics. They favoured riper styles of wine, with sweeter fruit flavours: wines delivering immediate gratification rather than needing a couple of decades in the cellar. In their wake, the consultants came along, willing to advise wineries how to make the sorts of wines that the critics favoured. And there was the creation of a new concept: physiological ripeness.


What is physiological ripeness? It is based on the idea that not all ripening processes in the grape are taking part at a similar rate. Putting things simply, there are two types of ripeness. The first is what used to be measured in order to determine harvest dates: the rise in sugar and concurrent fall in acidity. Let's call this sugar ripeness. The second is the development of flavour precursors in the skins, the change in tannins (from very astringent and green to softer and smoother), and the ripening of the seeds, as they go from bright green to brown. This is known as phenolic or flavour ripeness (phenolics are a group of plant chemicals including tannins and anthocyanins, the latter being the colour pigments). In cool climates, by the time you have sugar ripeness you usually have phenolic ripeness and it's time to pick. But in warmer climates, such as most of South Africa's wine regions, winemakers realized that there's often a disconnect between sugar ripeness and flavour ripeness. Often, if you pick at appropriate sugar and acid levels you end up with a wine at say 13% alcohol and with enough acid that there's no need to add any, but there's not so much flavour or colour in the wine, and the tannins are a bit hard. So winemakers began waiting for flavour ripeness, leaving the grapes on the vines for longer, and picking by taste and sight (for example, looking for brown seeds and soft skins). The problem here is that while these wines made from 'physiologically ripe' grapes can have very sweet fruit and taste soft and delicious from the outset, they can often have alcohols in excess of 14.5%, and require the addition of lots of tartaric acid before fermentation to avoid the wine spoiling later, which is what happens if acid levels are too low.


For a while, big, ripe, sweetly fruited red wines with lots of alcohol and soft tannins were all the rage. There's certainly a sense of deliciousness to some of these wines, especially at first sip. But there are three problems with them. First, they can be so heavy that they are one glass wines: you just can't finish the bottle. Second, they just end up all tasting the same: international red wines that could have come from anywhere. Thirdly, they don’t tend to age very well: they deliver all their pleasure on release and then don't get better but merely survive. They aren't balanced wines.


There has been a move away from this style of late, and nowhere is this reversion to making more balanced wines more evident than with the new wave of South African winemakers. Eben has certainly been at the forefront, but others are also showing the way. Take, for example, the beautifully poised wines of Duncan Savage. The American critics gave him low scores for his debut red wine, but it has proved immensely popular with its precision, lower alcohol and elegance. Craig Hawkins' Testalonga wines also show that you can have full flavoured red and white wines at lower alcohol with good natural acidity. And the wines from Mick and Jeanine Craven are beautiful, flavoursome and elegant and sit at around 12% alcohol. If you manage your vineyards well, you can pick early and still make wines with lots of flavour. It’s very exciting to see.

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