Harvest begins: Wine country in autumn
I absolutely love this time of year. I think anywhere you go in the northern United States in the fall is just spectacular. The weather is usually good and you are rewarded with the colors of autumn. But there is no place like wine country. The frenzy, the waiting, the rush, the very long hours, the rewards of a year’s hard work, and of course the colors of the grapevines. Harvest is a frantic time in wine country, and it is also the height of the tourist season. So there are many things going on and many people. It is crazy! Harvest is the optimum time to pick, based on chemical and taste profiles of the grapes. A winemaker will sample grapes from various parts of the vineyards in order to get an accurate picture to the state of maturity of the entire vineyard.
Some grape varieties ripen earlier than others. The location of a vineyard is also key to the timing of harvest. The chemical analysis reveals relative sugar levels as well as levels of acidity and pH. The sugars will indicate the levels of possible alcohol or residual sweetness the wine will ferment to. Acidity is a component for balance in the wine. The pH indicates potency of the hydrogen ions in a solution; solutions with more hydrogen ions have a stronger acid content. pH measurements are based on negative exponent numbers meaning that the lower pH, the higher the acid levels. The pH is also important because it indicates how well the grape juice, and the wine, will resist bacterial spoilage. Low levels in pH are more resistant to infection.As grapes ripen, sugar increases due to heat and light, in other words, sunlight. Heat and humidity affect acid. So a hot dry climate will result in lower acids. Cooler climates will result in higher acids. Sugar indicates the maximum level of alcohol possible during fermentation.
In North America, sugar is measured by brix using a refractometer or a hydrometer. If the weather should suddenly change and get cooler and the sugar levels are still not to the liking of the winemaker, it becomes a very intense 24-hour-a-day vigil. A winery can spray water on the grapevines to protect the fruit from frost. They may light lanterns in low lying vineyard spots to create an updraft of warm air. And they pray a lot.Once all the chemical and taste compounds of the grapes have been satisfactorily met, harvest begins. This process is either done by hand or by machines. The key is to get the ripest grapes to the winery in the best condition possible. Hand picking allows for careful harvesting into small baskets with the least amount of disturbance. The grapes should stay as cool as possible to avoid early fermentation. For this reason most wineries pick as early in the morning is physically possible.
I harvested one year; we started at 4 am, and that was the easy part! It is considerable work! High end, small production wineries pay these valued harvesters by the hour, not the weight, ensuring they take considerable care in the vineyard. They might go over a single row of vines three or four times in the span of a week, picking single berries as they ripen.Harvesting by machine also has it proponents. There is a lower labor cost; you can harvest at night due to headlights; and the larger wineries are trying for consistency and uniform quality and machine harvesting seems to guarantee that consistency.All this is done just to get the grape from the vine to the winery. The winemaking process is what follows next, and I think I’ll save that for next week.
If you ever have an opportunity to experience the frenzy of harvest in wine country, I highly recommend it. It’s a great deal of fun and educational and chances are good that you well get a chance for your very own Lucille Ball moment and stomp some grapes. It is a tourist thing, but it’s a ton of fun!Susanne Johnston is the owner of Frisco Wine Merchant. For more information, contact her at (970) 668-3153.
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