April 28, 2011

On bripeness

I've been in Tucson, Arizona, the past few days for a conference related to my day job, running university continuing education programs. It's nice to get a break from the cold and wet spring in Portland.

Would you believe people are making serious wine in Arizona? Locals here would scoff. Of course we are, they'd protest. Where have you been? The high desert around Tucson and other relatively higher elevation sites northwest of Phoenix near Jerome and Prescott have several vineyards, not the least of which was planted by Oregon's own Dick Erath.

Turns out I'm not the only one looking for a break from the wet. Dick may have sold his eponymous winery last year, but he has been down in several years focused on Arizona viticulture. Arizona, where frosts after budbreak and rain at harvest are essentially non-factors. Dick's traded Pinot noir for Sangiovese and other grapes more suited to the southwestern climate.

In the arid climate here, you need plenty of water for irrigating your vines. The good news is you don't need to worry much about rot and mildew in the vineyard. I imagine organic farming is easier here, if you're so inclined. Not so much need for highly engineered sprays for to ward off disease during wet growing seasons.

However, I imagine you do need to worry about "bripeness." Bripeness? That's a word my Guild Winemakers partners and I (mostly they) coined to describe really ripe tasting wines that are obviously acidified. In hot climates, grape sugars can rise quickly while grape acids plummet, especially because of warm nights. The results are grapes with plenty of sugar and ripe fruit flavor, but lacking acidity that keeps a wine fresh tasting (and microbiologically stable). The solution? Tartaric acid powder from a bag. Heaps of it in some cases.

Now let's be clear. I'm interested in making wine from grapes without fussing with them if possible. Wine grapes have the rare natural ability to be made into wine without added sugar, acid or even yeast. I think if you can do that, do it. But you can't always do that, and part of the issue for me is building the experience of when to pick to preserve natural acidity while not having unripe flavors. I will add tartaric acid to wine when I think it's necessary. I won't add too much, mostly because I don't want bripeness.

What's that taste like? Candy is a good example. Take Sweettart type candies. They're sweet and fruity tasting, but have serious tartness. My kids love Sour Patch candies. Same thing. Intentionally tart though sweet at the core to provide balance. And what about Pixie Stix? Essentially sugar and citric acid, and oddly enough Pixie Stix is a newly classic term to describe certain wines, usually those that taste highly acidified. Where the fruit flavor is broad and ripe, not cool and focused like lesser ripe but still ripe berries, for example, with something of a tent pole of acidity sticking out awkwardly. Acid that makes the ripe wine overly bright, or simply bripe.

Yesterday I tried the 2009 Arizona Stronghold Mangus Red Wine, yes, from the guy from Tool among other people involved. The wine was tasty with plummy flavors, obviously ripe but not pruny or raisined. And not volatile or otherwise flawed like hot climate wines can get. But it was bripe. Just a little too tart for the ripeness. Not bad, rather a smudge on perfectly good, clean table wine.

The wine shows the challenge of this desert climate. But I'm left curious to try more Arizona wines, including those from Dick Erath's planting that is apparently not too far from where I'm staying. Wish I had more time. A return visit may be in order.


Don Julien said...

I'm preparing a tasting of Arizona wines for my local eno society. Last February, I & some friends tasted over 50 wines & chose 5 of the best to share. Meanwhile, I've been studying up on AZ wines. The grapes are grown at elevations of 4200 to 5200 feet on moderately alkaline soils (pH 7.8 to 8.4). At that elevation, daytime temps are around 95 degrees, with a diurnal drop of 35 or more degrees. This nightly change in temp produces grapes that are naturally high in acid (no bripeness). Irrigation from 300 ft wells provides water when needed thru drip. The vines are naturally stressed (not much need for thinning or canopy pruning), producing a low yield of one to three tons per acre on their own. Because the acid is so high, most wineries use neutral oak to keep balance & to let the fruit shine thru. Challenges?: In 2009, a late frost in Willcox wiped out as much as 75% of some vineyards' crops; in 2010, a hailstorm stripped the vines in Sonoita vineyards, completely obliterating the season's crop in that area. Total vineyard acreage in AZ is currently 650, so if you lose the crop on your 10 or 25 acres, you don't have many sources elsewhere to buy grapes. As for the 2009 Mangus, keep in mind it's been in bottle for less than 6 months; most AZ wineries release their wines VERY early (they say it's because of demand; I suspect its limited capital). My notes on the 2009 Mangus do note it was very full & ripe for a Sangio-cab-merlot blend, but I'm going to let the bottle I purchased rest for a year or so to let it mellow.

Vincent Fritzsche said...

Don, thanks for the informative comment. Fascinating to learn more about the soil acidity. Our soils in Oregon are fairly acid. I had no idea about Arizona. I realize I wrote too generally. Of course there is the monsoon season in summer, so rain can be an issue. Though I don't think that affects harvest so much. And at elevation up near Jerome there are cooler nights compared to other areas. The bottom line - I want to try more. Wish your tasting was in Portland, assuming it's not.

Dudley said...

Hey Amigo! A question for you. Your post states the Erath winery was sold last year. I previously read that in 2004/2005 Dick Erath sold the winery (label, capital improvements, etc) to Chateau Ste Michelle. However, he did not sell much of his land. Rather, he entered into a long term lease arrangement with CSM for it to farm his land and use the juice. Am I right? Held a poor Seattle-ite out!

click here said...

i wouldn't think grapes could flourish in such an arid landscape. granted in the mountains and hills, rainfall and snow hit and hit hard.