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Working with high Brix grapes

2014 July 4

The drought conditions and heat wave in California this season may have pushed harvest up about 3 weeks in some areas, reports of smaller crops have some winemakers concerned, smaller crops usually mean higher prices.

After hearing about potential higher brix grapes several times, including Gene posting about it (I figure that Gene has the inside scoop on grapes), it has me thinking…

How will I work with high brix grapes?                                                                                                                                                            
I would think that high brix would be considered 28+ Brix, last fall I didn’t have any issues working with Sangiovese that came in at just over 26 brix, as a matter of fact, I didn’t do anything differently.

With grapes that could potentially come in at 28 Brix or higher, (this is just a number I’m using since no one really thought that 26 brix was pushing the envelope too far, this is hypothetical) I think that the three most likely methods of working with such grapes would be:  Ferment at the higher brix , Saignee , or Dilution.

All three methods can pose their own problems –                                                          

Fermenting a High Brix must – All of the research that I’ve done online has been focusing on healthy fermentations, everything that we all normally do, using a hydration nutrient, selecting a yeast that has a higher alcohol tolerate, hydrating the yeast at proper temps, tempering the yeast prior to pitching, using a proper yeast nutrient and additions, and adding oxygen,
I realize that none of this is new or earth shattering, but I wanted to emphasize this to make a point that all of the advice given here is spot on and no different than the recommendations given from the experts at Scott labs and Lallemand. 
A big issue would be getting a wine with such high Brix through MLF, assuming that we are dealing with 28 Brix, at 15% ABV or higher, it would be pushing the limits of the Alcohol tolerance for most strains.                    

Saignee – Although I’ve never done this, I can only imagine that after removing a percentage of the wine and adding water to lower the Brix (I assume it would be acidulated water depending on the ), that the biggest concern would be diluting the concentration of acids and overall flavors.
Depending on how much it would be diluted, selecting a MLB with a higher alcohol tolerance would be necessary.      

Dilution – Again, I can imagine that the only disadvantage of diluting the must in order to lower the Brix would be diluting the concentration of acids and overall flavors.
Once again, depending on how much it would be diluted, selecting a MLB with a higher alcohol tolerance would be necessary.

I’m interested in hearing your experiences, how would deal with, or how you have dealt with high brix grapes, what were the advantages and disadvantages.


21 Responses leave one →
  1. Gene Fiorot permalink*
    July 5, 2014

    OK I will start…

    1. About prices. Many not all grape growers have year to year contracts with M&M. This helps to keep the prices some what level. Of course when a multi-year contract ends and if there is market pressure you can expect a rise in price. Also any first time offerings are subject to either a one year contract or a multi-year contract or what the market will bear.

    2.Before we deal with Saignee or Dilution you have to know a little about the grapes. Last year we received grapes with considerable dehydration. This condition gives you a high brix reading but adding water does not dilute the solids acids or flavors nor is it necessary to acidulate the water. So Saignee would not be necessary. We had a considerable discussion on the blog last year about grapes in this condition. Proud Puppy was the first to identify this on the Blog.

    3. For reasons of discussion where do we put Brix and consider it high? I think of really High Brix grapes at 27 and above. I would ferment at 25 Brix all day long and never think of adding water. Others think 24 is high. But then again others ferment at 72 degrees. lol! And speaking about that issue for a second. Most Whites come in at 22 Brix. Ya think it is easy to finish the sugar at 22 brix with a 65 degree ferment opposed to trying that at 26 Brix.

    4. MLB selection is pretty much Alpha or VP41 As far as Yeasts are concerned you pick a good one with non troublesome parameters. Adding 25% more yeast to the culture and the corresponding increase of Go Ferm Protect at 25 Brix is a standard procedure for me.

    5. Advantages and Disadvantages. When grapes come in at 25-26 brix I tend to relax. I get concerned over that number and you have to deal with it. The whole acidulated water thing is overblown in my opinion. You can check the PH after adding water and see the effect. Never trusting TA at the crush I am very leery of adding acid. I have seen too many bump ups of TA to make any decisions. But if presented with a high PH then I might be interested in adding some acid no doubt but it would not have anything to do with the grapes being high in Brix. To be clear I am more likely to just add water if the PH was good when dealing with high brix.

    6. Another consideration of especially when receiving refrigerated grapes is the initial brix readings are not always correct. I am not talking about Hydrometer or Refractometer compensation. With ripe grapes you can have a considerable Bump Up of Sugar a day or two when cold soaking. Even if you are not cold soaking you have to take into account that the sugar may be present. So your 26 Brix grapes may really be 27 brix. During Lag Phase you can usually see whether this condition takes place.

  2. Bzac permalink
    July 5, 2014

    Usually with high brix grapes you get some raisining and even when you don’t you have low acid and high ph
    So you don’t merely dilute , you add acidulated water to bring the brix and ph down and acid up.

    I don’t bleed or Sangee high brix fruit , preferring acidulated water and a good dose of enzymes to extract the skins a bit more .

    But why not just buy fruit from a cooler region ? Russian river , Sonoma coast or Washington ?

  3. Bzac permalink
    July 5, 2014

    If I have raisining , I add so2 at crush , and do an initial brix check with my hydrometer .
    I add my enzymes and let the must rest over night , mixing it up and punching it a few times .

    In the morning after it’s all had a good 12 hour soak , I mix it up well and do a full set of tests , brix ph and TA .
    I make my adjustments in small steps , ie add acidulayed water , mix it up really well , test
    Add a little more , test , adjust and so on.
    When I’m happy I prepare my yeast starter and go.

  4. Gaetano permalink
    July 5, 2014

    Thanks again for a detailed reply, I never even considered that high Brix grapes would be dehydrated, this is why I enjoy these types of threads, there is always a lot to learn from those of you that are more seasoned then me.
    I agree, I’ve been using VP41 for most all of the MLF, and I also add more yeast and go-ferm as the brix get higher, I keep the Scott Labs fermentation handbook close at hand as a reference!
    I believe that you recommended that I wait 24 hrs before testing the must, I’ve been doing that ever since then.
    Very nice link, I read through 25-30 replies, I’ll have to read the other 130 replies later.
    You asked “why not just buy fruit from a cooler region ?”
    I agree, but since this was a hypothetical scenario, I was hoping to hear what experienced wine makers such as yourself, Gene, and the countless others that post on this blog would do or have done in a scenario where they have high Brix grapes to work with.
    Your question is the perfect answer, we could avoid this by purchasing “better” fruit.



  5. Gene Fiorot permalink*
    July 6, 2014

    I no way discounting Zac’s advice but faced with making 27 brix Rutherford Cab Sav do you really think we are going to not take the grapes and instead hope Sonoma gets harvested without problems and be able to be shipped to the East Coast? Not if you are smart or have copious amounts of wine in the cellar if you get skunked and it doesn’t matter if the grapes never arrive and you can still cover your barrels.

  6. Gaetano permalink
    July 6, 2014

    Availability is the major consideration, more so with seasons like this where smaller crops are reported, plus, I’d roll the dice on the chance to make a Rutherford Cab!
    Zac has a valid point, I didn’t throw that variable into the mix because I was trying to create the situation of only having high brix grapes to work with.
    This might seem absurd, but you’d be surprised what others that have been presented with this scenario can learn from those of you that have had to work with high Brix grapes.

  7. Bzac permalink
    July 6, 2014

    Might be a good year to get some finger lakes can franc to blend in and bring some aromatics and acid to the barrel

  8. Gene Fiorot permalink*
    July 6, 2014

    I wonder if Frank gets these? I will have to ask. Although I understand this past winter wiped out the vinefera in the Finger Lakes.

  9. Bzac permalink
    July 6, 2014

    Sounds like a tough year all round ,
    I had to book my Washington grapes and pay up frount this year .
    First time ever .

    Apparently many of the large California producers are snapping up a lot of contracts to make up for anticipated shortages .

  10. Gene Fiorot permalink*
    July 6, 2014

    There is real market pressure on the East Coast with Finger Lake Wineries buying CA grapes.

  11. Gaetano permalink
    July 6, 2014

    Gene & Zac,
    I guess that I should see if the local winery will have any Cab Franc left over after harvest… our small wine club helped pick several tons of grapes last year, they had so much that they actually left 2 tons of Seyval Blanc on the vines that we could have harvested and taken for ourselves, I didn’t know this until weeks later.
    We plan on helping them again this year.

    Adding grapes with higher acidity to balance out the wine sounds like a great idea, much more natural.
    Sooo… I have to ask you guys a bunch of questions about using high acid grapes to raise the acidity:

    In low acid/high PH musts, lets say that we are presented with high brix grapes with low acidity and high PH, is there a limit to the grapes that you can add to raise the acidity and lower the PH, do you look for a percentage of the total grapes, or do you test both and add the more acidic grapes (Zac suggested Finger Lakes Cab Franc) slowly doing bench trials?

    Not to open the co-ferment/single varietal ferment again, but would you add the more acidic grapes at crush, or would you crush and ferment by itself and blend the two before barrel aging?

    Gene, you mentioned “Never trusting TA at the crush I am very leery of adding acid. I have seen too many bump ups of TA to make any decisions.”
    When do you feel that the TA test results are more accurate, I usually wait 24 hrs after crush.

    This is very interesting, uncharted territory for me, you might be able to tell that I really enjoy learning as much as I can…LOL

  12. Bzac permalink
    July 6, 2014

    Blending once both are dry , mlf complete clear and stable would be my recommendation .
    It’s unlikely both will be ready at the same time
    And targeting any sort of balance co fermenting is a crap shoot .

  13. Gaetano permalink
    July 6, 2014

    Thanks , after my Chilean Malbec became very vegetal, I totally understand why you recommend fermenting each separately, on the other hand, the Bordeaux blend that I am making is a co ferment and so far no vegetal or other issues, I’m happy with it at this point.

  14. Gene Fiorot permalink*
    July 6, 2014

    Prior to 2006 the grapes we received from local suppliers were not held in refrigeration. Essentially the Cold Chain really did not exist. So we got grapes usually at 75 degrees. For years we did TA tests and got reasonable results where we used the test results to add tartaric. We were accustomed to adding lots of it too as all the grapes were low in acid from Central Valley and Lodi. The grapes were totally over cropped which didn’t help the acid either. The in 2006 we obtained our first grapes from M&M. With their Cool Tank System where the grapes are palatalized, the temperature control of the trucks shipping, the complete refrigerated warehouse in CT, and the refrigerated truck delivering grapes to our winery grapes arrived below 50 degrees. Also these grapes were not from Central Valley. We went about our normal procedure and tested for TA and added an appropriate amount of Tartaric. We were happy with the results on the Ph as well. But then the unexpected happened. TA adjusted for .67 ended up at .80 at pressing. We nearly passed out. Now we don’t really spend that much time worrying about TA unless the PH is very high.

    here is more on the subject….

  15. proud puppy permalink
    July 9, 2014

    Oh yeah Gene, that learning curve of the first time dealing with superior fruit (for west coasters..normal fruit) sure did mess with ‘tradition’. Over extracted the hell out of my first Malbec for that reason! Sure don’t wanna see that Rutherford Cab looking inky now, do you?

  16. proud puppy permalink
    July 9, 2014

    For the big reds(obviously not speaking of well crafted Pinot Zac) no sweating at 26 or even 27 Brix as the tweaks are minimal, if any. They won’t impact the profile if H2o or acid H2o used, so only need to worry really about MLF concerns and getting rocket fuel if EtoH is out of balance with desired profile. When your first tests show 28 or 29, and it won’t go through the crusher pump as it has too little juice along with high brix , that is time for concern.

    Like Gene said 26 or a little higher is no sweat, and tweaking has little impact on profile beside the correction of sugar.

  17. Gene Fiorot permalink*
    July 9, 2014

    Yeah Puppy I forgot that the grapes were so thick the Crusher pump hose was getting stopped up. First time that happened was last years Silverado Six Cab and Atlas Peak Merlot. Had to add grapes really slowly in the hopper.

  18. Bzac permalink
    July 9, 2014

    Sound like you’ve had issues with tartaric falling out of solution then coming back in when the must warms up because of the prolonged cold storage? It works with frozen musts .

    Wouldn’t bringing the must up to temp and mixing well before testing and pitching reduce the testing innacuracy?

  19. Bzac permalink
    July 9, 2014

    Oops bad edit

    Sound like you’ve had issues with tartaric falling out of solution then coming back in when the must warms up because of the prolonged cold storage

    Wouldn’t bringing the must up to temp and mixing well before testing and pitching reduce the testing innacuracy?
    It works with frozen musts .

  20. proud puppy permalink
    July 9, 2014

    It works to a small extent, as it takes a while longer to re suspend or dissolve the T.A(if the re dissolve much at all) than it does sugars for example. They are very difficult to re dissolve, and much grit stays at bottom of fermenter. Not as bad as in dropping tartrates in wine which is actually not really tartaric acid but a tartrate or bitattrate of potassium I believe. In must it is more tartaric acid but also a mix of tartrates which are difficult to dissolve. warming and mixing only helps a little. More changes happen as AF progresses, sugar decrease temp increase and K+ shifts, which change tartrate and T.A. solubility.

  21. robert permalink
    September 19, 2017

    The Primativo we ordered came in at 32.53 Brix because the grower could not get pickers. It have bee a beast to ferment we diluted to reduce the Brix twice and are pulling some Syrah Noir must/pressings to keep the tannins up. We used Uvaferm 43 yeast (18% alcohol tolerance) at the start and again as part of Lallemand’s restart protocol (although it never really stopped just real slow). We are now at 4.5 brix and slowly falling.

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