As grapes begin the process of maturation, evaluation of their ripening should be taken place in order to determine harvest date. While for many people, grape maturity is a numbers game (optimal sugar and acidity levels), in reality it is much more complex and subjective. While optimally grapes are harvested with a potential alcohol around 12%, in many places in the world they would be considered “ripe” at much lower or higher levels. I’ve had perfectly well-balanced and complex Riesling Kabinett at 7% alcohol, and I’ve even had wine at 15-16% alcohol that didn’t taste ‘hot.’
Sugar and acidity only give us a small portion of the picture (the technological maturity), and while labs are capable of advanced measurements of grape phenolics, aroma development, and color development, you can get a good sense of grape ripeness by using your taste buds. This is especially important for grapes destined to become red wine, as the maceration of the wine on the skins is what gives red wine its color and structure. Phenolic and aromatic ripeness can be determined in the vineyard. As your sugar levels increase, tasting the grape berries can give you a good idea of the phenolic ripeness and aroma development. And, if you are methodical about the way you taste grapes, you can have a record from vintage to vintage in order to compare the flavors of the grapes from your vineyard from year-to-year.
Here is good method for Grape Sensory Analysis that was developed by the Bureau Interprofessionnel des vins de Bourgogne.
Groups of 3 berries are examined simultaneously, with 3 main areas of focus:
-Visual and tactile examination
-Tasting of the pulp and the skin
-Visual and sensory analysis of the seeds
Maturity is determined from Twenty descriptors and scored from 1 to 4 on a scale corresponding to increasing stages of maturation.
Part 1: Visual and tactile Examination of the Berries
1) Press the berries gently, evaluate their ability to crush :
1- Hard berry, splits with strong pressure
2- Berry indents slightly under fingers, very elastic, will return to its initial shape
3- Berry indents easily, slightly plastic, slow to return to its initial shape
4- Berry is soft, splits completely under light pressure
2) Ability to shell
Facility with which the berry detaches from the pedicel
1- Berry is strongly adhesive, detaches with difficulty from the pedicel, tearing its skin
2- Berry is adhesive, pedicel detaches with difficulty while retaining a large part of the pulp
3- Berry detaches pretty easily, pedicel retains a little pulp
4- Berry detaches very easily, pedicel retains very little pulp attached to the pincher
Zone of insertion to the pedicel
Part 2: Tasting the Pulp
Place the berries in your mouth, extracting the pulp of each of the three berries by pressing successively each berry between the tongue and the roof or the mouth. Retain the pulp from the 3 berries in your mouth. Spit the skin and seeds, save them.
4) Adherence of the pulp to the skin - film of pulp adhering to the skin is detected by observation or by sliding the skin between your fingers or between your teeth
1 – Pulp adheres strongly to the skin
2 – Film of pulp adheres to the skin
3- Film of pulp hardly visible, but juice is freed when skins are chewed
4 – No visible film of pulp, and no juice freed when skins are chewed
5) Sucrosity of the pulp
1- Pulp is slightly sweet
2- Pulp is medium-sweet
3- Pulp is sweet
4- Pulp is very sweet
(6) Acidity of the pulp
1- Pulp is very acidic
2- Pulp is acidic
3- Pulp has medium acidity
4- Pulp slightly acid
7) Aromas of the pulp – This parameter depends on the variety, and doesn’t evolve in a regular fashion over the course of maturation
8) Intensity of the dominant aromas of the pulp
1- Weakly intense
2- Medium intensity
4- Very Intense
Part 3: Tasting of the Skins
After spitting out the juice and the pulp, place the 3 reserved skins back in the mouth while saving the seeds in your hand. Chew 10 to 15 times. Next, rub the homogenized skins over the roof of the mouth (palate) then over the cheeks between your gums. After spitting out the macerated skins, pass your tongue over the palate (tannin intensity). Slide your lips over your gums (Astringency). Note the following observations:
9) Ability of the skin to lacerate
1- Skin is hard, presence of large fragments after chewing
2- Skin is hard, presence of small fragments after chewing
3- Skin is easily lacerated, forming a nearly homogeneous paste
4- Skin is pretty easily lacerated, crushed skins form a homogenous paste fairly quickly.
10) Tannin intensity of the skins
1- The tongue slides without effort on the palate
2- The tongue sticks slightly
3- The tongue slides with difficulty
4- The tongue slides with great difficulty
11) Acidity of the skin
1- Skin is very acidic
2- Skin is acidic
3- Skin has moderate acid
4- Skin has little acid
12) Astringency of the skin – Determined by passing the chewed skins between the lips and incisors, and noting the facility in which your lips slide over your gums after the skins are removed. This parameter depends more on the variety of the grape rather than the level of maturity. Astringency of the grape correlates well with that of the wine.
1- Lip slides easily over the gums
2- Lip sticks slightly against the gums
3- Lip slides over gums with difficulty
4- Lip slides over gums with great difficulty
13) Dryness of the tannins - determined from passing the chewed skins over the roof of your mouth (palate)
1- The tongue slides without effort over the palate, no difficulty with re-salivating, feeling fine-grained and silky
2- The tongue sticks slightly, difficulty with re-salivating, feeling of medium grains
3- The tongue slides with difficulty, difficulty with short re-salivation, large grains
4- The tongue feels almost stuck against the palate, difficulty with re-salivation for more than 5 seconds, aggressive feeling on the palate
14) Aromas of the skin
15) Intensity of the dominant aromas of the skin
1- Weakly intense
2- Medium intensity
4- Very intense
Part 4: Visual and gustatory examination of the seeds
If green traces remain in the seeds, there is no need to taste them. They will be bitter and astringent.
16) Appreciation of the color of the seeds
1- White – yellow/green
4- Deep Chestnut
17) Ability of the seed to break
1- Presence of soft peripheral matrix, and need of strong pressure from the incisors to break the seed.
2- Presence of a fine peripheral matrix; seed is still moist and breaks with strong pressure
3- Peripheral matrix almost absent; seed is still hard, slightly crunchy
4- Absence of peripheral matrix; seed breaks easily
18) Aromas of the seed
1- Seed unfit to taste
2- Green, herbaceous
19) Tannin intensity of the seeds – This is evaluated in the same manner as for the skins.
1- Tongue slides without effort over the palate.
2- Tongue sticks slightly.
3- Tongue slides with difficulty.
4- Tongue slides with great difficulty
20) Astringency of the seeds – again, this is evaluated the same way as for the skins
1- Lip slides easily over the gums
2- The lip sticks slightly
3- The lip slides with difficulty
4- The lip slides with great difficulty
Now that you’ve made note of the the the maturity of the berry, it’s time to interpret the results. You can summarize the data into 4 main categories: technological maturity, aromatic maturity of the pulp, aromatic maturity of the skin, and maturity of the tannins. While all of these interpretations are varietal-specific, you can start to get a good sense of the overall maturity of your grapes in order to make important decisions concerning winemaking. This is where the old adage “you can’t make a good wine from bad grapes” comes in. What is really meant by this statement is that if you start with poor-quality fruit, you can’t expect to make a wine capable of aging for 30 years. If, however, you understand that your grapes are under-ripe or of poor-quality, you can adjust some of the winemaking parameters in order to make the best possible wine for that fruit. The true talent of a winemaker is seen in how well he or she handles bad grapes. So, for example, in under-ripe fruit you want a shorter cuvaison time in order to minimize the extraction on undesirable tannins. In higher-quality fruit, you may want to extract as much of the quality tannins as possible. With experience, you will begin to learn what works best for your particular vineyard site.