Wine: Well hung bunches

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Harvesting wine grapes as late as possible can add to the sexiness of the vintage, say winemakers.

Chakana Reserve Mendoza Malbec 2008 $22.90. Photo / Babiche Martens
Chakana Reserve Mendoza Malbec 2008 $22.90. Photo / Babiche Martens

Well hung is not a term you may think immediately applicable to wine, but on a recent foray into some local vineyards, these words were on the lips of a number of winemakers when voicing their excitement about their late-harvest wines. Hang grapes on the vine for a good while and they get riper, which for winemakers and drinkers alike can be a very sexy thing.

Most winegrowers strive for ripeness in their grapes: the point where the concentration of sugar, acid and flavours come into balance. This sweet spot is somewhat subjective, often determined by the tastes of the time and varying between regions, as well as the different grape varieties themselves, some of which need time to build up their flavours.

Some grapes, such as semillon in the Hunter Valley, are perfect picked early. Black grapes in particular often need to be left out for a considerable period before they become palatable, especially in cooler climates where colder years can mean grapes need every minute they can grab in the sun.

With dessert or late-harvest wines, so called "hang time" is supremely important in creating the style. Grapes that make these wines often need to build up more sugar than most, so the longer they can be left before picking the better. Very often, grapes for dessert wines are assisted on their way to sweet success by the "noble rot", botrytis, which shrivels healthy grapes, concentrating their sugars while leaving their acidity relatively intact.

In Germany - a cool country, which struggles to ripen many varieties but is home to some of the greatest sweet wines - the main wine classification system is based on a pyramid of ripeness. Determined by the sugar content of the grapes at harvest, its quality wine categories start with the least-ripe kabinetts at the bottom, rises through the riper spatleses and ausleses - which can still be dry, as ripeness here is more an indicator of concentration - up to the super-ripe and sweet beerenausleses and trockenbeeranausleses.

In countries when rain can pay an unwelcome visit at vintage, hang time can be cut short by the weather. Wet periods often mean the winemaker will have to make a call on whether to risk leaving the grapes out to mature further or bring them in early to avoid rot and other rain-related issues.

Under-ripe grapes often make unappealing wines. These can lack flavour, sear your palate with their extreme acidity and, in red wines, contain terrifyingly tough tannins and sometimes unattractive herbaceous notes.

To avoid these distasteful scenarios, particularly in cooler places where ripening can be an issue, there's been plenty of work done in the vineyards in recent years. This spans the widespread practice of removing leaves from the vine to expose the fruit to the sun to more novel methods, such as spreading crushed glass under them to reflect sunlight back up on to the grapes.

Grapes can go the other way as well. In warmer climates if they're left out too long the alcohol levels of the wines they produce can make them closer to a port than a table wine, as more sugar means more potential alcohol. Acidity can also plummet, although in warmer climates, acid is often added in the winemaking process.

Being excessively well hung can also impact on a grape's flavours. Wines can exhibit "jammy", cooked fruit notes and, if the grapes start to shrivel when not destined for a dessert wine, impart an undesirable dried or "dead" fruit flavour.

Being well hung is no simple matter. As viticulturalists will certainly concur, it's sometimes not what you've got, but how you use it.

TASTE TEMPTERS

HOT STUFF
Chakana Reserve Mendoza Malbec 2008 $22.90
A warm winemaking nation such as Argentina has few issues in getting its grapes ripe, reflected in the softer, fuller-bodied and more alcoholic styles these tend to make. This big, bold and rich wine is a prime example with its almost liqueur-like blackberry and blackcurrant fruit over notes of liquorice and cocoa. A great buy. (From Glengarry.)

COOL PICK
Fromm Riesling Spatlese Marlborough Riesling 2009 $29
Fromm has used the German term spatlese to describe its delicious, low-alcohol (7 per cent), medium-style riesling. It's delicate and racy, with pure green apple fruit fused with hints of lemon balm, honey and almond and lingering notes of mineral. (From Caro's, Fine Wine Delivery, Scenic Cellars.)

SWEET TREAT
De Bortoli Noble One Botrytis Semillon 2007 $39.90
This is the 25th anniversary of De Bortoli's consistently impressive botrytis-affected sticky. It's light in alcohol at just 10 per cent but intense in flavours, with an unctuous palate of peach, marmalade and spice, balanced by a wonderful citrussy freshness. (From Glengarry.)

- NZ Herald

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