Give Me Some Sugar (for my Grapes!)

Field of Mourvédre, with stormy skies threatening

Brix is a winemaking-specific term which indicates the percent of sugar in unfermented grapes. The Brix scale is used along with other indicators to help determine when the fruit has reached its optimum maturity and is ready to harvest. Right now grape growers and winemakers are all in a tizzy anxiously discussing the condition of the fruit, the weather, trouble-shooting potential problems and generally gnashing their teeth, hoping for the best possible outcome. In order for the sugars to develop and the fruit to ripen evenly, steady sunshine and warmth are of utmost importance.

For everyone not involved in grapes or winemaking, the recent change in weather is “warmly” welcomed. There’s been a break from the pounding heat-wave that had us all fanning ourselves languidly and un-inclined to be active till late afternoon/early evening. However, for those of us waiting for our grapes so that we can begin working with them, the change in weather may be distressing depending on our chosen varietal and the style of wine we have in mind. 

Victor Moreno’s cell rings constantly this time of year as he coordinates harvests for various vineyards and reassures nervous winemakers like myself. My dog, Lily sniffing the vines 🙂

Why is sugar so important in our grapes? It’s the sugar that the hungry yeasts feed on during fermentation and which is chemically transformed into alcohol. A grape that’s harvested with low Brix will produce a low-alcohol wine and there are no corrections that can be made after the fruit is picked, other than to blend with other grapes. On the other hand, as sugars rise so does pH and a high pH is undesirable. Also acidity drops which is critical to the overall balance of the wine. Seriously? This shit is complicated. I love learning, fortunately, however when it comes to the weather, there’s not much I can do but throw up my hands and hope for the best. Essentially, what we’re talking about here means that the quality of any wine produced is somewhere around 85% determined by the quality of the fruit at the time of harvest. We want ripe fruit with a perfect pH and balanced acidity. Riiiiiight. In my perfect world!

Mourvédre on the vine. Here you can see some over-ripe and some under-ripe berries.

So the weather’s cooled off and we got a little rain. So what? Doesn’t that just wash the dust off the grapes and won’t they continue to ripen, albeit a little slower? What if harvest is delayed a week or so. What’s the big deal? The problem is that rain can damage ripening grapes by bruising, or breaking their skins and introducing bacteria and other nasties. Tight clusters are prone to mold when not exposed to heat and sunlight. And sometimes it is necessary to harvest early or risk losing your crop. Most of the varietal flavor compounds develop late in the ripening of the fruit, which is another important indicator that your grape is ready to rock ‘n roll. All in all, harvesting early while Brix are low and other maturation indicators are not at their prime could mean that a vintage that looked like it would be a real blockbuster, turning out highly concentrated fruit from which to make heady, aromatic, age-worthy wines could be a little less than stellar.

I’m dying to get my hands on some grapes. But I’m willing to wait for that perfect moment …. Meanwhile, I’m crossing my fingers, knocking on wood and doing my “let-the-sun-shine-in” dance.

Me and “my grapes.”


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