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Tasting Grapes

September 13, 2012
Question by: Alex, Bracknell, UK

Q:

In the VPS Blog, you mention that Charles has been walking the vineyards and tasting the grapes.  What is he looking for when he tastes the grapes?  How do the grapes taste when compared to the white table grapes I normally buy in my supermarket and eat at home?

A:

Hi Alex, The flavour and texture of the grapes really does change tangibly as they mature, and you can taste the differences between varieties, and even between parcels of the same variety.  It is hard to imagine until you have tasted a lot of grapes yourself over the pre-harvest and harvest period.  I have often asked Charles this question and watched him working his way through the vineyards - the assessment process is something like this:

Charles looks at the overall state of the vine (Is it healthy, or showing any signs of hydric stress or disease), then the state of the clusters and individual grapes.  If the grapes are plump and firm, good, but a little bit of dehydration is a good thing too, as the reduction in water means flavour compounds are concentrated in less juice.  For a good example of this "washerwoman's fingers" effect, look at the photo of Tinta Amarela on the Graham's Blog article about the first day's harvest at Quinta do Tua.  On the other hand, too dry - like a dried out raisin, hard to the touch - is not good.  

Now to tasting - Charles once said when he tastes the grapes he can taste the wine they will make.  You really can taste the sugar levels, the acidity, the tannins - just as you can in a wine.  Ideally you are looking for the pulp to be sweet and the skin of the grape to deliver more complex flavours, whilst the pips should be distinctly crunchy - maybe even having a slight flavour of toasted almond.

Finally, Charles always crushes grapes between his fingers and kneads the skin a bit to see how much colour it releases.  As the grapes ripen and the skins thin out - even in very thick skinned varieties - the skins will release deeper colour more easily.  He also examines the pips - they should be a distinctly nutty brown colour - if they are still a bit green or yellow, it is one more sign the grapes are not yet ripe.

Differences between varieties are very distinct, even to this layman taster:  Today I was tasting grapes with several of our viticulturists and winemakers, and I can tell you the Tinta Barroca is sweet and very fruity tasting (think summer pudding fruits), Touriga Nacional is also very sweet but the flavours seem much more intense than the Barroca, and can even taste spicy and complex like Christmas cake, and Tinta Roriz left a clear tannic finish.

As for comparing them to white table grapes?  This morning before we went into the vineyards I enjoyed some lovely sweet white table grapes growing in the arbour at one of our quintas.  After several hours tasting through our vineyards, I came back to the office and ate some more of the white grapes.  They tasted bland, acidic and tart after the richly sweet and complex flavours of our Port varieties.



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