Brix is a Four Letter Word
by Jim Law
At Linden Vineyards the sugar content (brix) of ripening grapes plays a minor role in picking decisions. During vintage 2015, just after the rains of late September/early October, I was surprised to hear growers talk of waiting to pick so that the brix would increase. This is counter to many progressive winemakers whose past emphasis on high brix equating to high quality has waned.
In Virginia one would believe that the higher the alcohol content, the better quality the wine. Growers wring their hands with anxiety hoping for some sugar movement late in the season. Winter conference bragging rights revolve around whose brix was highest. When I get asked about brix levels I cringe. The French don’t talk about grape or must sugar content. They refer to the measurement as potential alcohol. This is an accurate, succinct expression. The alcohol content is an important component in a finished wine. It influences balance, mouth feel and harmony of any wine. Low alcohols can make a wine feel skinny and thin. High alcohols can throw the balance, making a wine clumsy and tiring.
Potential alcohol (brix) is not a good indicator of ripeness or quality. Those who still delay in picking waiting to hit a certain number are more likely to harvest compromised grapes and rely on additions to fix the resulting wine. Reliance on a single numerical indicator can lead to different problems.
It is often said that a white wine’s first job is to refresh the palate during a meal. Relatively low alcohol and high acidity do this job. Virginia is climatically well placed to fill the ‘refresh’ void that California can’t do. But I’ve tasted too many clumsy blowsy Virginia white wines that don’t wear their high alcohols and low (or added) acids well. Our warm, cloudy climate usually allows us to get white grapes physiologically ripe at a well-balanced potential alcohol. But I often observe an attempt to push the grapes to higher brix with the goal of producing a full blown flabby ersatz California styled wine. If winemakers are regularly adding acid, then the grapes are being picked too late or the wrong variety is planted on the site.
The late rains of vintage 2015 inspired this article. Ten years ago I would have also let our Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot attempt to recover from the late September deluge. I have recently tasted Linden’s red wines from 1999, 2000, and 2002. In these vintages I hung the grapes well after significant harvest rains. The brix eventually increased (probably through dehydration), but rot had compromised cluster integrity and skins had lost most of their tannins. These wines no longer have any structure and have a certain sweet/sour profile that can be common in Virginia reds. I now focus on skin integrity for reds. If the skins start to slough off or degradate we pick regardless of brix, TA or pH.
I have to admit that when I started doing this the young wines seemed green and tart, but time in the cellar and the bottle transformed them to fresh, vibrant and structured.
There is a trend now in California towards lower alcohol wines. An organization of winegrowers in California called In Pursuit of Balance conducts tastings and seminars on lower alcohol, higher acid wines. My impression of the wines is very favorable, but I wonder if they are disrespecting their terroir. It seems that in sunny California, very high brix (potential alcohol) is hard to avoid. What wine balance they achieve by picking early can often make a meager wine without a core or ripeness of flavor or density.
I feel that Virginia can do better than California in achieving this style. We have clouds and haze, which reduce sun intensity, and we have rain that can stall brix accumulation. Perhaps this is a good thing. For decades these climatic features were considered wine quality disadvantages. A “post-modern” paradigm shift of evolving wine style preference is changing how we define ripeness and approach picking decisions. Virginia is in a good position to produce a wine style that is distinct and what wine consumers want. Let’s not let brix get in the way.