Today’s Wine Word: Hangtime


I was tasting with a  client today and noticed that they already had fermenting Sauvignon Blanc samples out on the tasting counter. That’s 2013 Sauvignon Blanc I’m referring to! And, the winemaker who handles the reds says they’ll bring in some Pinot Noir next week. All of this reconfirms that harvest is early this year. What does it mean in terms of quality? Who knows?

But it reminds me that the #1 topic at harvest time is “hang time.” The term is 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 and you know that the sugar is on its way up and the tartness (acid) is 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 reached full bloom.

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.

If the acid has gone a bit flat while waiting for flavor maturation, the winemaker adjusts by adding tartaric acid, which isn’t as good as harvesting it, but it works and is pervasive in Califonia.
In a cool climate they get plenty of hangtime, but not always enough sugar. What are they to do? Add sugar. Most cool-climate regions permit this and regulate it. And, if the acid’s painfully high there are a few different ways to bring it down. Having to deal with rain damage is more common to cool climate situations.
So, warm climates and cool climates meet in the middle when it comes to harvest-time issues.
Overall this has been a warm season, so the cooldown this month has been a blessing. Let’s just hope the weather holds through the rest of harvest.

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Filed under viticulture, wine harvest, winegrowing

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