Time to pick?

Our favorite wines undertake a protracted, and somewhat arduous progress from the vine to the family table. The journey is punctuated by a series of often crucial decision points by the winemaker.  It starts with the selection of the grape variety best suited to the soil and the climate in question. Once determined, optimizing factors such as row orientation, spacing and training of the vines, pruning and trellising become essential to ensure high quality.  Irrigation and canopy management are important to ensure healthy vines and minimize disease.  Fungal diseases, in particular, pose a serious threat to grape growers.  Healthy crops require the correct choice of sprays at the right intervals.  But perhaps the single most critical consideration is the timing of harvesting – the all-important “vintage.”  Timing is determined by the ripening of the grape, as measured by the sugar, acid and tannin levels and on the desired characteristics of the wine that will ultimately be produced.  If the grapes are picked prematurely, the wine will have high acidity, low sugar levels and a lighter body, often coupled with a rather unpleasant unripe fruit flavor. Conversely, if harvested too late, sugar and alcohol levels will be higher, acidity lower and overripe fruit flavors will be present in place of the preferred fresh fruit characteristics.  Historically, winemakers gauged the readiness of the fruit by examining the color of their grapes and tasting them.  Today winemakers tend to rely on a more scientific approach.  An instrument known as a refractometer measures sugar levels, and titration tests determine the level of acidity.  It’s all about the “chemistry.”

Take Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio for example.  Even though both are derived from the same variety of grape (despite different names in France and Italy,) they are two distinct styles of wine as a result of the different harvesting practices in the two countries.  Pinot Grigio is typically a drier, lighter bodied wine with higher acidity and more citrus fruit flavors resulting from early harvesting.  On the other hand, Pinot Gris – typical of the Alsace region of France – is made from grapes harvested later in the growing season. The latter contains more sugar and has pronounced stone fruit flavors.  Alsace Pinot Gris is less acidic and typically has a medium to a full body. Alsace is known for its sweet wines, although not as sweet as a dessert wine, produced from late-picked, ripe grapes, referred to as “Vendange Tardive” (late harvest).  Even though a late harvest is practiced in other regions, the term Vendange Tardive is legally restricted to Alsace.  

Another example is the German Riesling. German winemakers are often challenged by country’s cool climate presenting obstacles to grapes ripening to the desired sugar levels – so much so that German wine labeling system is based on the ripeness and sugar levels of grapes at the time of harvest.  Based on harvesting choices, Riesling can be made in a variety of ways with different degrees of sweetness. For certain sweet styles, the grape sugars are concentrated on the vine, while some wines are made from grapes harvested during a freeze. Grapes left on the vine well into the winter exhibit high levels of sugar and are gently pressed while still frozen.  Unlike the drier, lighter bodied Rieslings produced from early harvest grapes with their green apple and citrus fruit aromas, wine made from the pressing of frozen grapes is called Eiswein (ice wine) with its distinctive stone and tropical fruit aromas.

Weather, of course, plays a role in determining the timing of the harvest. Extreme heat or excessive rain, hail and frost are all detrimental for a successful harvest. Such weather conditions may promote vine diseases or cause grapes to swell (with associated dilution of flavors) due to excess moisture in the soil.  Other harvesting decisions involve the nighttime versus daytime harvesting, and the use of mechanized versus manual picking of the grapes. Mechanical as opposed to hand picking of the grapes has become a fiercely debated topic in the industry. Machine harvesting is a relatively new technique, introduced only a few decades ago.  While cost effective and works well in certain areas, it is unsuitable in extremely hilly areas such as northern Rhone, the classic region for Syrah or for the steep terrain of Mosel, Germany, home of the Riesling.  In addition, machine harvesting is simply not possible for some of the sweet wines, such as Sauternes or Trockenbeerenauslese, as the individual berries that are botrytized can only be harvested by hand.

The harvest season which typically extends from August through October in most of the northern hemisphere grape growing regions is over for the year by now. In the Southern hemisphere, the season falls between February and April.  Regardless of the hemisphere, though, the harvest is a critical time of the year for all winemakers.  It marks the culmination of their yearlong nurturing of their vines. The season is one of much celebration and is widely recognized by harvest festivals with their associated wine tasting events, meals, dancing, concerts and, not least competitions and other local cultural festivities of a particular region.   In Chile, for example, various wine festivals get under way in the last two weeks of March.  Curico’s grape festival is a curious mix of the scared and the profane in which a religious ceremony blesses the first batch of the harvested grapes.  Festivities are marked by crowning of the harvest queen and impressive colorful parades. In Turkey, on the Anatolian peninsula (the region where the first wines were made some 6,000 years ago,) each wine region has its own harvest tradition.  But the common denominator is music, dancing, singing and stomping competitions, commencing in August and culminating with “harvest madness” in September. Grape harvest rituals are equally colorful and entertaining in France, where celebrations include wine tastings, wine auctions and cooking demonstrations – the month of September in what the French refer to as Vendanges is a time of pure “grape craze” and celebration. In Spain, La Rioja, Jerez and Navarre festivals are among the most famous, where the local tradition actually encourages a game of hurling wines at each other!  Recreational workshops, offering education on wine production processes and techniques, as well as wine tasting classes feature widely in Spain and in other countries as well.

Until the next harvest season cheers!