Game on for growers: The fall harvest begins
September 6, 2017
It's game on for growers and vintners across the Northern Hemisphere. From Burgundy, moving westward to Walla Walla in Washington, from Sicily in the south to the burgeoning sparkling wine vineyards of the United Kingdom, the harvest season has begun. It is time for those who grow grapes to reap what was sown in the spring.
In California's Napa Valley, the Domaine Chandon winery picked eight acres of pinot noir for sparkling wines at their Yountville estate in the early morning hours of Aug. 7. And in Sonoma County, Gloria Ferrer Vineyards began harvest that same morning in the Green Island Vineyard in American Canyon, not far from San Pablo Bay. That came more than a week after Lodi's Michael David picked the first grapes of the new season in Lodi for their sparklers on July 24. Over the next two months, into early November, the California wine harvest will continue in earnest.
But global optimism for the 2017 harvest has already been tempered a bit due to heat waves that have spread across wine regions in the northern hemisphere. In Europe a heat wave that was given the ominous moniker of "Lucifer" hit just before harvest making an already difficult season in France and Italy that much tougher.
And, on Labor Day weekend, temperatures rose to the triple digits in northern California. The forecast for Saturday, Sept. 2, in St. Helena, California, called for the thermometer to reach as high as 113 degrees, an unprecedented figure. It is not unusual for vintners to see hot spells in September and growers know how to deal with it, but heat as hot as this forecast can have severely deleterious effects on grapes.
The decision of when to pick a vineyard is made using both science and senses. The science calls for a measuring of the sugar levels, or brix, that is evident in the grapes. The senses are about the winemaker's personal experience tasting the grapes. But a sudden elevation in temperatures adds an additional element to the decision. Extreme heat will often encourage an earlier pick than planned. "Get 'em off" is a phrase uttered with alacrity when the heat takes hold.
But that is not an easy proposition. For one, you need to have trained pickers available at a moment's notice, and, in the ever-squeezed California labor markets, that is proving to be a growing problem. Second, grapes need to be picked when they are cool, generally when they drop at night into the middle 60s. But with the extreme heat, the temps of the grapes will not drop until significantly after the sun has set. Even the early morning may see the grapes reach optimal temperatures for just a short time. This means more clusters have to come off quicker and, with the great majority of Napa's harvesting being hand picked, there is only so much that can be done to improve the speed of the yield.
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In general there is a progressive order to a harvest based on the type of grapes that are grown. The grapes used in sparkling wines are picked first, before their sugar levels get too high. Next up are the aromatic whites, the pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc and riesling (though not the sweeter, late harvest riesling), wines that are meant to be drunk young. While, as a rule of thumb, chardonnay would follow, there are so many different styles of Chardonnay, that the choice of when to pick varies greatly. Chardonnay was already starting to be picked in the final week of August.
The reds begin with the delicate pinot noir and then move into varietals like zinfandel, sangiovese and even merlot, before the longer hanging and hardier cabernet sauvignon comes off the vines. A longer "hang time" results in higher sugars and more concentrated flavor profiles in general.
Of course we are talking farming here and, as any farmer can tell you, things change quickly based on the whims of weather and whatever higher power it is that controls the harvest. Most will also tell you that things are changing. That there are more seasonal variations than there were, even a decade ago. That major weather events seem to be happening with greater frequency and feature greater ferocity than was once the case.
Right now the winemakers and growers are intensely focused on the here and now of the current harvest. But be sure that once the game ends talk will once again turn to the changes in climate.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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