It's a term we often hear associated with winemaking, but what the heck does it mean and why is it so important?
We hope you've been enjoying our Ask The Expert series here at Reverse Wine Snob! Today we delve into a bit more technical question: "What's The Big Deal About Brix?"
To help us answer we've enlisted Paul Clifton, the Director of Winemaking at Hahn Family Wines. Read on for his answer to this question.
Brix is the measurement of the sugar level in grapes. Sugar is vital for the yeast growth, which converts the sugar to alcohol. The higher the Brix, the higher the alcohol will be. If the sugar level in grapes is too high (above 26 degrees) the yeast will not survive once the fermenting juice reaches about 15% -16% alcohol.
The most common instrument used to measure the degree of Brix — which is the level of soluble solids (sugar) in the juice — is called a refractometer. Juice is put onto a glass lens. The light traveling through the juice is bent based on the sugar content. The higher the sugar content, the more the light bends. The bent light registers on a scale which we call "degree Brix".
During fermentation, we continue to measure the level of Brix to help us monitor how quickly or slowly the fermentation is moving. Once the Brix measure zero, we know fermentation is nearly complete.
Brix is the one measurement referenced most by winemakers, but it's not the only focus to determine when fruit is ripe. The amount of fruit acids, pH, seed ripeness, skin/color development, and flavors all have an impact on how the finished wine will taste.
As an example, let's say we planted Pinot Noir — a cool climate variety — in a hot region. Through photosynthesis in that hot region, the sugar accumulates in the grape very rapidly. If we were just using Brix as a measure of ripeness, prime picking range would be around 25-26 degree Brix, the upper limit at which yeast can survive the resulting alcohol.
However, we would most likely see seeds that are still green because the fruit didn't have time on the vine to brown the seeds. This can lead to astringent wine. We would taste very low acid and high pH because the heat metabolizes the acid, making the wine taste flabby. The color of the skin would also not have the chance to develop, and the color that has developed in the skins can get bleached out by the baking sun. The resulting wine can look more like rosé.
So, winemakers look for grape varieties planted in environments similar to the variety's origin. Once we find that, all those ripening factors discussed above come together in harmony and result in a balanced, great tasting wine.
Fascinating stuff! Thanks again to Paul Clifton, the Director of Winemaking at Hahn Family Wines for answering the question "What's The Big Deal About Brix?"
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