Right about now, as we start to experience a little cooler temperatures at night and that touch of crisp air that tells us Autumn is marching steadily toward us, in vineyards all across the northern hemisphere, vineyard hands are working feverishly collecting bunches of grapes off the vines under the dutiful watch and organization of vineyard managers who are closely monitoring the weather forecasts ever fearful of spikes in the daytime temperatures and the threat of those all-too-familiar September rains. Many consumers don’t realize just how important harvest time is for a winery and how, without exaggeration, the difference between a good wine and a poor one, or especially a great wine and a mediocre one, might well be determined right now. I thought it might be fun and interesting for many wine drinkers to outline a few points about how crucially important this time of year can be for the wines we drink and love.
Essentially, there are three MAJOR concerns for wineries when it comes to getting their crops off the vines and into the winery: heat and/or sunshine, oxidation, and rain. Add to this that they are trying to get the best possible fruit into the winery and that means fruit that is at the optimum level of ripeness as well. This means their timing must be carefully thought-out as they hang their grapes as long as they can while keeping an ever-watchful eye on the forecast. All of this often amounts to a highly choreographed dance which causes a lot of gray hairs to form and can many times lead to a mad scurry of vineyard hands rushing out into the rows to quickly remove bunches before the onset of an impending storm.
First, in terms of heat and oxidation, both of these elements can very easily ruin what would otherwise be perfectly ripened fruit and you would experience a very different wine in the bottle as a result. For this reason, you will often see high-quality producers picking in the wee hours of the morning, or even over nighttime, with picking stopping around lunchtime when the sun reaches its zenith. It is crucial for fresh-tasting wines, to have fresh, undamaged fruit delivered to the crush pad. Exposure to heat can result in a loss of freshness, which is especially damaging with concern to most white wines on the market.
For much the same reason, it is also important to protect the fruit from the damaging effects of oxygen. If the berries break in the crates, or if the berries become dislodged from the stem, some of the juice will leak out and oxidation will begin immediately. If you don’t think this makes a big difference, consider whether you would prefer a red delicious apple that was just removed from the refrigerator and sliced right in front of you, or an apple that was quartered a few hours ago and left sitting on the counter on a hot summer day. As apples oxidize and turn brown, they lose their freshness and the same thing happens with grapes. This loss of freshness can be a detriment for both white and red wines and this is why you’ll see wineries go to great lengths to pick whole bunches of grapes very carefully, often with laborers hand-picking as opposed to machine harvesters, and handling those bunches as carefully as possibly while transporting them to the winery as quickly as possible. Hand-picking will undoubtedly raise the cost of the wine, but it is often well worth that cost.
This is all being done with an eye on the forecast. Winemakers will often try to hang their fruit sometimes as long as they can to get the right balance between the sugar ripeness—which will give you alcohol—and the flavor ripeness, which comes from elements within the skins. This is especially important for red wines, as they ferment on the skins and, as such, are highly influenced by the components contained therein. If rain comes during harvest, it can be disastrous for a winery as the fruit will soak up the water and the berries will literally grow fatter with dilution. This will lead to a much inferior product as flavor intensity is one of the primary components distinguishing premium wines from bulk wines. All the effort a winemaker went through to achieve an optimum level of ripeness can very easily be lost if this occurs. Hence, most wineries will time these events out very carefully to avoid this.
In the end, as we are enjoying our wines right now on the back porch watching the waning days of summer and the birth of fall, this is really one of the busiest and possibly most frantic times of the year for most wineries. It is often said by winemakers, and said so without exaggeration, that great wines are made in the vineyard, and harvest is a crucial aspect of that process. Happily, our only job is to enjoy the fruits of their labor!
– Brian McClure, HashtagWV September 2016