Powerful prize winners—but are they table wines?

Powerful prize winners—but are they table wines? – Column

George Vierra

When I started making wines in the Napa Valley in 1971, there were about two dozen wineries making top quality, cork-finished wines in the San Francisco Bay Area. Each winery made dozens of different wines. Like all winemakers, I wanted to make the world’s greatest wine. That seems to be the holy grail of our trade. Cabernet Sauvignons were beginning to emerge as being among the very best of the wines we produced. The style of Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as other wines, has changed drastically in the past 30 years. The thing that really sticks out is that the wines of the 21st century have much greater alcohol and lower acid than past wines.

All grapes crushed at California wineries have their sugars measured by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA). After the harvest is completed, CDFA compiles all the numbers and publishes the “Final Grape Crush Report.” From this report, one can obtain the average sugars as delivered to the wineries for crushing. The report shows these averages by grape variety and appellation. The table on this page shows the average grape sugar (degrees Brix) for Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa County for every year from 1971 through 2001. The table also shows an approximate alcohol content the wines made from these Cabernet grapes might realize.

These numbers are all averages, and there are many wines, especially those obtaining the top wine reviewer scores, that are even higher in alcohol. It should be noted that the alcohol yield can vary greatly from lot to lot. Many things, like fermentation temperature, handling of fermenting fruit, wine and yeast can give different alcohol yields.

Because of these higher sugars, I feel that it is very difficult to find a “balanced” Napa Valley wine these days. The wines are too high in alcohol and low in acid. It’s impossible to find a wine to accompany a nice piece of fish, poultry, veal or most other dishes. These wines are all great at tastings and do very well with Robert Parker/Wine Spectator. Many California winemakers have to de-alcoholize their wines to reduce the “hotness” on the finish.

Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards puts these elevated grape sugars into context. He strives to create wines that “are first and foremost a compliment to food.” These high-alcohol wines are interesting and have a place in the market. But as Draper says, “They really aren’t table wines.”

A little story adds to the argument. Before starting Vichon Winery in 1980, I had about six wine tastings in my home. Sitting around our dinning room table, six people would taste eight different wines. Equal numbers of French and California wines were put in each tasting. We tasted Sauvignon blanc, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. The wines were tasted blind, scored and rated. In five out of six tastings, a California wine won. We took our notes into the living room to discuss the wines. A caterer meanwhile set the dining room table for lunch. The places were set, the glasses of wine topped up and we were called back to eat. We were served a meal I had planned with the caterer to accompany the wines we had just tasted. We had our meal and continued our meeting and we noticed that the wines that came in first at the tasting were not the favorite wines with the meal.

A wine which came in, say, fourth at the blind tasting, was preferred with the food. It was after the meal, and only then, that the wines were unmasked. Almost always the wines with higher acid, less oak, less alcohol were the first wines finished with the meal. They always were French wines.

The intent of these tastings and meals was to convince my partners and marketers of the style of wines I wanted to make and the marketing message and concept to use. This followed my reading of a column by Frank Prial, written in, I believe, the early ’70s and published in the International Herald Tribune, where he talked about the difference between “table or dinner wines” and “tasting wines.”

With this table wine style in mind, I am trying to find research showing limits in the vineyard. We know that sugars are manufactured in the green cells of leaves and are transported to storage tissue: trunk, roots, fruit, etc. In the grapes they are then transformed into glucose and fructose. I will call this the physiological sugar. We in California measure these sugars as degrees Brix or degrees Balling. These physiological sugars can be further concentrated in the grapes as a result of raisining, desiccation or microbiological infection. My thought is that because of xylem flow blockage, as the sugar in berry climbs, the phloem inflow will slow, reach a plateau and soon sugar in the berry reaches a maximum. What is the maximum? What happens to the other hundreds of compounds in grapes?

Dr. Stephen Krebs at Napa Valley College believes that a Vitis vinifera grape has, as do all fruits, a maximum physiological sugar (MPS). His memory is that approximately 23[degrees] Brix may be the MPS of Vitis vinifera. I argue that at this MPS, the grapes are balanced and so will be the resulting wine. My thought is that the proper grape, in the proper vineyard, with ideal weather conditions can make a truly balanced wine. Finding the proper vineyard land in the correct micro-climate and planting the correct variety is the biggest challenge to the winemaker.

The primary argument from modern California winemakers is that the grapes stay on the vine to attain “proper maturity” and to, among other things, develop desirable flavors, body development, aromas, mouth feel and soft tannins and avoid green herbaceous flavors. These are generally decided by the winemaker’s palate. I feel that by allowing this “proper maturity” to be reached, all the other compounds, especially acids, go out of balance. As we know, approximately 1,000 different compounds have been identified in wine. The vast majority are volatile compounds. Given the conditions of a specific vineyard, the winemaker must take the best option offered. It could be that because of loss of berry weight and increase in sugar that the concentration of compounds gives the winemaker a sense of better maturity. But if all the necessary criteria for growing the perfect grapes on a piece of land were not met, the conclusion may be moot.

We certainly know that higher sugar does not make the best wine. Cabernet Sauvignon will reach 23[degrees] Brix in Bakersfield, in the southern Central Valley of California, 30 to 45 days before reaching the same sugar in Napa. In all cases the Napa grapes will have better color, aroma and flavor. The Bakersfield winemaker tries to make “better” wines by letting the grapes hang until reaching 24 to 25[degrees] Brix. These wines have more flavors but are not balanced.

I am not aware of work being done on this ripening process. Is there a maximum physiological sugar in Vitis vinifera? I have heard many say no. But that defies logic. All the contrary claims are purely anecdotal. If there has been research on finding the MPS, what happens to all the other compounds in grapes after the MPS is passed?

It could be that because of canopy management, irrigation, clone and rootstock certification and cultural practices, Cabernet Sauvignon is not the proper grape for the Napa Valley. Should it be planted in cooler regions than the Napa Valley to produce wines of maximum aroma, flavor and still be balanced? Maybe the truly great and balanced wines from Napa will come from Grenache noir of the southern Rhone, Gracino or Tempranillo of the Rioja, Carignane or other varieties used in Southern Italy or farther east in Europe.

The frequent reports of global warming should not be ignored, either. This may be important for all winegrape growing regions. It has been documented that in Western Australia there has been an appreciable rise in temperature between the first and second halves of the 20th century, averaging 0.5[degrees]C or more. Other regions have shown similar increases.

Or maybe the Napa Valley should re-examine its viticulture. What will allow Cabernet Sauvignon and other grapes to be harvested at both “proper maturity” to satisfy the winemakers, but also at MPS to produce balanced wines? In other words, how do we get back to producing table wines? What can the Napa Valley do in the vineyards with regard to land, soil, soil amendments, rootstock, scion, clone, training, trellising, canopy, spacing, irrigation, pruning and leaf and fruit thinning to achieve this goal?

When I first started in the Napa Valley, I drank and enjoyed some 15- and 20-year-old Napa reds that were in the high 11% and low 12% alcohol ranges. They had good life and nice balance. In 1976, at the Paris tasting, two Napa Valley wines, the 1972 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon and the 1973 Chateau Montelena Winery Chardonnay, were considered by a group of French wine experts to be better wines than the best wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy. The analysis of the Cabernet was 13% alcohol, 0.62 total acid and 3.55 pH. Those grapes were picked at 23.6[degrees] Brix, .62 TA and 3.40 pH.

Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

Average Brix and Alcohol


1971 21.4 13.1

1972 20.9 12.7

1973 21.8 13.3

1974 22.7 13.8

1975 21.8 13.3

1976 22.9 14

1977 22.5 13.7

1978 23.1 14.1

1979 23.4 14.3

1980 23.3 14.2

1981 23 14

1982 22.7 13.8

1983 22.3 13.6

1984 23.1 14.1

1985 23.1 14.1

1986 22.7 13.8

1987 22.9 14

1988 22.6 13.8

1989 22.6 13.8

1990 23.1 14.1

1991 23 14

1992 23.3 14.2

1993 23.4 14.3

1994 23.2 14.2

1995 23.6 14.4

1996 23.7 14.5

1997 24.5 14.9

1998 24 14.6

1999 24.3 14.8

2000 23.8 14.5

2001 24.8 15.1

RELATED ARTICLE: An Opinion Backed With Credentials

To many in the California wine industry, St. Helena-based George Vierra needs no introduction. The founder in the 1980s of both Vichon and Merlion wineries in the Napa Valley and a founding member of the group that developed Meritage wines, previously Vierra held the distinction of working with both branches of the Mondavi family, first as winery production manager/winemaker at Charles Krug, then as general manager of Robert Mondavi Enterprises.

A graduate of San Jose State University with a B.S. in chemical engineering, Vierra earned a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Oregon State University. He taught winery business startup and management and winemaking at Napa Valley College, has been executive director of the Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association and has owned a wine distribution company.

Since 1993 he has occupied himself as a consultant and wholesaler, with clients including Cilurzo Vineyard & Winery, Napa Valley Co-op, Eisele Vineyards, Sebastiani Vineyards, Shadow Mountain Enterprises, Las Cerezas Vineyards, Tri-Valley Vineyards, Northbrook Winery, Tenuta Vineyards and Deer Ridge Vineyards as well as international clients in Hong Kong and Europe. His wholesale companies are Antonio Vieira Negociante and Phoenix Fine Wines.

Vierra may be reached by phone at (707) 967-1151 or (707) 815-3244, by fax at (707) 967-1161, or by e-mail at givnapa@inreach.com. To comment on this article, please e-mail edit@winesandvines.com.

RELATED ARTICLE: UC Davis Releases Grape Varieties Book

The UC Davis Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources has released a new publication, Wine Grape Varieties of California. The 188-page book is the first comprehensive variety publication written by UC viticulture specialists and advisors to cover all of California’s districts. Included are ripening periods for 53 varieties grown in California, ripening dates of varieties by period and growing district, a glossary and a bibliography.

The book’s most impressive feature is the discussion of 36 major wine grape varieties grown in California. The section covers synonyms, source, physical characteristics such as clusters, berries and leaves, harvest periods and methods, and winery use. Each variety is highlighted by close-up photography of its clusters, leaves and leaf shoots–143 color photographs in all. The photos are sharp, beautiful and–best of all–extremely useful.

Wine Grape Varieties in California is available for $30 (not including shipping, handling and sales tax), and can be ordered by calling (800) 994-8849 or by logging onto anrcatalog.ucdavis.edu.

Personal communication from the following people helped in writing these thoughts: Dr. Ralph E. Kunkee, Bill Swain, Dr. Stephen Krebs, Mike Grgich, Warren Winiarski, Dr. Erland Happ, Dr. Mark Krstic, Dr. Anne Noble, Dr. Andrew Reynolds, Dr. James A. Kennedy, Dr. James A. Wolpert, George Kolarovich, Dr. Sanliang Gu, Dr. Glen L. Creasy, Dr. Andrew Walker, Dr. Christian Butzke and Dr. Jose L. Saenz. I also read published pieces by Dr. John Gladstones, Dr. Andrew Waterhouse, Dr. B.G. Coombe, Dr. Kalliopi A. Roubelakis-Angelakis, Fred McMillin, Dr. Bruce Zoecklein and Rebecca Chapa.

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