Thursday, September 3, 2009

We're Not Even Sampling Yet

While the grape trucks rumbling up and down Highway 29 signal the start of harvest for other wineries in the valley, our picking bins, sorting table, crusher/destemmer and press are all still tucked snuggly away in the storage room. As picking crews and cellar teams busy away at neighboring wineries, life at Paradigm rolls along at late summer’s languid pace. The vineyard will laze under a few more weeks of sunshine before harvest’s toils come knocking on our door.

Ripening, in the long version, is a complex physiological process that involves sugar transportation, ion transfer, respiratory catabolism of acids, and a bunch of other things that are definitely better explained in your high school biology textbook than they will be here. Ripening, in the short version, is the simple progression from tasting acidic, tannic and watery, to tasting concentrated, balanced, and well…ripe.

The Paradigm estate vineyard started veraison, the green-to-red color change shown by maturing red grapes, in late July. If we take a moment to glimpse into the evolutionary past of our good friend the grape vine, this visual cue evolved as means of flagging down a means of seed (thus gene) dispersal. Sending the maximum number of genes into the world is the end goal for nearly all life forms. But back to grapes – once the seeds are viable (able to pass the vine’s genes along in the form of a new plant), the seed chemically signals the grape’s skin that it’s time to turn color. Passing birds stop to nibble on the pretty red berries (suddenly quite visible against the green canopy), and never know they’ve fallen into the vine’s reproductive trap as they happily drop little grape genes all along the way to their next stop.

Shockingly, humans have pickier palates than do birds. While seed viability may have been completed with veraison, a tasty grape that will translate into a tasty wine is still a long ways off. Grapes starting veraison are tart, watery, and bitter. If you care to taste a berry at this point, one might find that Merlot tastes like broccoli stems and Cab is reminiscent of a non-spicy jalapeno, both with enamel-stripping acid levels and tannins that grate on your tongue in a way that you might not have a reference for unless you’ve ever gnawed on a banana peel.

As the grapes ripen, acids will slowly decrease as the sugar content increases, skin tannins grow softer and less bitter, and the overall flavors will phase out of the “green” category (broccoli, bell peppers, grass) and become more fruit-like (melon, peach, blackberries…). As we get closer to harvest, we’ll pull samples out of the different vineyard blocks in order to track chemical markers of maturity in our lab, but for now it really only requires heading out into the vineyard and tasting a couple berries to know that, for us, harvest is still a few weeks away.

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