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Hang Time

With another California grape growing season beginning will the controversy over “hang time” come up again. Hang time, or extended hang time is a relatively new term referring to the amount of time growers allow the grapes to hang on the vine before they harvest. This issue was big in recent years mainly for two reasons. The first being grape growers felt they were being cheated by the longer hang time. Ed Weber, the Napa County viticulture advisor for the University of California Cooperative Extension, conducted a study on Cabernet grapes. Weber concluded that for each degree of brix, or sugar over 26 degrees, a Cabernet grower’s tonnage would decline by 5% due to dehydration. Since most growers are paid by the ton for their grapes they are obviously not happy. For those who don’t know, brix is the measurement sugar in the grapes. A common standard around for years was for red grapes to be harvested at 24 degrees brix, so you can understand growers concerns about the trend of pushing grapes to 26 degrees and beyond. The second part of the controversy relates to alcohol in the wine. Winemakers can predict that about 50-60% of the grapes sugar, (which cannot be added in California) will convert to alcohol. So if you do the math on a grape with 24 degrees brix you can see that after fermentation your wine will have about 12.5-13% alcohol. Take it a step further, a grape that comes in with 28 degrees brix can produce as much as 16-17% alcohol, a pretty potent wine. Anyone who knows wine is aware of the ongoing discussion on the good and bad of higher alcohol, a subject for a whole other story. If you watch labels you are aware of a gradual increase in alcohol levels of California wines and recently many European wines too. Some reports say California grapes are being picked at as much as 4 degrees higher brix then those harvested over 30 years ago, raising average alcohol levels from 12.5 to 14.8%. Higher alcohol levels can give the wine more body and a feel of richness. There is a down side to higher alcohol levels in America that hurts profit margins. A wine above 14% alcohol is taxed at a rate 30% higher than those under 14%. There are some high tech methods for reducing alcohol though, a process that is controversial, yet widely used and not a subject winemakers like to discuss. So as a consumer how should we feel about this controversy? I can say that especially in light of our recent economy I agree with the growers in regards to compensation for longer hang time grapes. A standard needs to be agreed on, and one example already in use by some, is paying for grapes by the acre, which just may be the answer. As for the wine and higher alcohol, I am all for it. As a long time lover of big bold California reds, I can assure you longer hang time gets my vote. Good winemakers strive to make a well balanced wine and I think that is the key, as long as alcohol does not hurt the taste, or aroma. So for my part I hope the growers and winemakers, if they have not done so already, work it out and continue to make those fantastic big California reds.

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