That’s what it’s all about, this time of year, and hangtime is an easy one because it’s literal. It refers to the length of time the grapes hang on the vine before they’re harvested.If you’ve grown tomatoes, you know that when the tomatoes first appear on the vine in early summer they’re hard, green and you don’t even think about tasting them because you know that they’re sour. As the summer goes on they plump out, soften up and begin to change color which tells you the sugar is on its way up and the tart acid on the way down. Well, it’s just the same with grapes. The best winemakers want the grapes at peak maturity, just like a great chef needs to buy the best meat and produce. There’s only so much you can do with average-quality ingredients in a restaurant or a winery. This is where hangtime really comes into play. In our warm climate here in the Napa Valley, the sugar builds quite readily and the acid softens quickly too. Since the sugar provides the alcohol and alcohol gives wine much of its body, it’s important to pick at the right moment. But, is the flavor development in line with the increase in sugar? Not always, in a warm climate. Sometimes the sugar reading (brix) screams “PICK ME!” at the winemaker, but the flavors haven’t quite turned the corner.
What’s a winemaker to do? He could pick at night, when the sugar reads lower and buy himself a few more days hangtime that way. He can just let the sugar build up and then dilute it down when the grapes arrive by “washing” them (which is quite common, but no one talks about it). He can make wine that’s 16% alcohol and hope it doesn’t feel too hot on your palate. He can send it out to be de-alcoholized. Or, of course, he can just pick the grapes by the sugar, which used to be SOP in Napa Valley until about the 1990s.