What’s the word on every grower’s and winemaker’s lips right now? Brix!
How sweet is that? 😉
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Well, this is a timely question: Susan wants to know what “Brix” means.
The small instrument you saw at the beginning is called a refractometer. It’s a prism-like instrument that measures the soluble solids in the grape juice, 90% of which is sugar.
Have you ever tasted just-picked wine grapes? Soooo sweet!
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So, we’ve established that it’s harvest time and talked about the importance of hangtime – getting the grapes in at the right time – but haven’t said too much about the role of the sugar, acid and pH in your glass of wine.
I wrote a fairly detailed article about this for Snooth, so I’ll just go over it once, lightly here today.
Sugar (Brix): As you know, the sugar converts to alcohol during fermentation so it’s pretty-darned important. The predictable outcome at the end of fermentation is that just over half the sugar converts to alcohol. So, if the winemaker picks grapes that are 24% sugar (or 24 degrees brix) he can expect to end with about 13 or 13.5% alcohol.
Alcohol gives wine most of its body or weight. A Cabernet from a poor growing season that’s low in alcohol will probably feel rather thin and unsatisfying on the palate. On the other hand, if the alcohol is too high the heat may tickle your nose or feel really hot on your palate. It’s not supposed to draw attention to itself – it’s just supposed to be there. High alcohol also gives the wine a sense of sweetness.
Acid: Maybe the term isn’t attractive to you. It makes you think of battery acid or something awful like that. But when it’s balanced with the other components it’s an incredible asset. It keeps the color bright, makes even a full-bodied style seem lively, helps the wine to age and makes it food friendly. In the vineyard, as the sugar goes up, the acid goes down. In a warm climate, like Napa Valley, we worry about not enough, which can make the wine flat tasting – doesn’t leave you wanting that next sip – and short lived. No one talks about it, but wineries routinely adjust the acid in the cellar. Cool climates worry about painfully tart acidity. So, again, it’s a question of balance. Continue reading
photo courtesy of lyzadanger on Flickr
Refractometer? Yup. It plays a very important role, now, as harvest approaches because it measures the sugar in the grapes.
The refractometer is a really nifty little instrument because it gives the winemaker an instant sugar reading. It’s kind of like a prism and measures the soluble solids in the grape juice. All you have to do is squeeze a little juice onto the lens of the refractometer. When you hold it up to the light it measures how much the light bends as it passes through the liquid. The denser the liquid, the more the light bends and the higher the reading will be (about 90% of the soluble solids is sugar).
Why is the sugar so important? It determines the alcohol. The winemaker can assume that a little over half of the sugar measured at harvest will result in alcohol in the finished, dry wine. So, if the grape sample measures 25% sugar the wine will be in the ballpark of 13.5 – 14% alcohol.
Incidentally, the degrees Brix, another wine word, translates to the percentage of sugar. 25 degrees brix = 25% sugar. So, you got a two-fer!
Other important components? Continue reading
Sarah wrote in because she was having dinner with friends the other night and they all agreed that their red wine smelled like Band-Aids. They actually liked the wine pretty well, but once one of them remarked on the Band-Aid character, all of them noticed it and it was hard not to focus on it.
Pretty wierd, huh?
Actually, Band-Aid is a classic descriptor for wine that has a spoilage yeast present calledBrettanomyces. It’s often called “Brett” for short. Technically, it’s a defect, but it’s really quite common. And, whether or not it detracts from the wine is a question of how much the Brett has overtaken it and your own personal taste. It’s harmless, so if you like the character, don’t worry about it.
Many professionals feel that in low concentration Brett adds to the wine’s complexity. There are some highly regarded wines that fairly consistently show what seems like Brett character. Since Brett might be confused with something else like terroir
(a sense of place that may or may not smell like earth or minerals) or varietal character (the meaty, animal character of Mourvèdre can be confused with Brett) only analysis will tell the tale.
In addition to Band-Aid character, depending upon the wine, you might notice earthy, barnyard or horse stable character. Some describe it as mousy, sweaty saddle or cheesy – YUM 😉 It makes a young red smell and taste older than it is and as it progresses it dries out the fruit. The flavors become somewhat metallic.
As far as we know, Brett arrives with the grape skins, just like the good wine yeasts
and, unfortunately, over time it can become part of the winery. The porous wood in the barrels makes them especially vulnerable.
If you ever open a bottle that is so Bretty that you just can’t enjoy it, take it back!
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Question from Donnie: I was trying to find information on which wines are less acidic, as I have a problem with acid reflux. I read that grapes grown in warmer climates are less acidic, is this true? And can you please give me a list of some less acidic wines? Thank you in advance for your help.
Hi, Donnie. Thanks for writing!
I think the most important thing for you to do is check in with your doctor about wine, in general, because even wines that are relatively low in acid are still quite tart when you look at the big picture.
If you’re familiar with the pH scale then you know 0 is acid, 14 is alkali and 7 is neutral. Purified water is neutral.
Wine is usually between 3 and 4 on the pH scale and is more acidic than just about any food you might eat unless you like to eat fresh lemons.
You’re absolutely correct that warm climate wines tend to be on the higher end of the pH scale, so lower in acid.
But, you asked me for a list of low acid wines. I should mention that reds are usually lower in acid than whites. Generally speaking, avoid regions that are famous for Pinot Noir, sparkling wine, Riesling or Gewürztraminer.
Well-known warm climates by region:
- Most of California: Avoid Sonoma Coast, Santa Maria Valley and Santa Rita Hills
- Most of Australia: Avoid Western Australia and most of Victoria
- Walla Walla Washington
- Mendoza Valley, Argentina
Unfortunately, most of Europe falls into the cool-climate category, especially the most famous regions. You might look at southernmost Italy and Greece for lower acidity. Also reds from Portugal and parts of Spain may fill the bill.
Wines that are likely to be tart: Sparkling wine, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Gewürztraminer…
I hope that helps and that you can find a wine that works for you. Cheers! Nancy
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