by Cristian Bortes

Your Comprehensive Guide to the Wine Grape Harvest

Grapevines Throughout the Year

The vineyard year begins in the chill of winter with the promise of a new growing season. During the early months, the vines are pruned in order to maintain their health. Pruning is the act of cutting back the vines, often in large measure, during their dormant stage. . As spring sweeps through the vineyard, new growth will appear on the pruned vines, an occurrence known as bud break. Growers monitor this phase to remove any buds that emerge in excess before flowering.

As summer warms the vineyard, immature grape clusters begin to appear. The sun, wind, soil and weather conditions will influence grape growth during this time. Excess moisture on the grapes can cultivate mildew; lack of rain can prompt irrigation. Growers know that each vineyard has particular needs based on the varietal, age of vines, position of rows, and other conditions. Pruning, trellising, pest management, canopy control, watering and other methods are employed during the growing season while keeping the final outcome of a great wine in mind.

As the grapes sense that autumn is on the way, they experience veraison, the stage of ripening that happens in the weeks prior to harvest.  Growers may choose to do a ‘green harvest’, during which they prune away certain clusters during the immature phase, in order to give other clusters dominance and nutrient focus. During veraison, grape color deepens, sugar level increases and acidity creeps away. As this occurs, growers will watch carefully to determine the ideal moment to harvest grapes in perfect balance.

Photo by PatitucciPhoto

When to Harvest?

In early fall—depending on the region, grape varietal and other conditions—growers will use experience and tools to determine when to initiate harvest. Skilled growers are able to visually examine the grapes to recognize physiological ripeness; a state marked by slightly shriveled skins, the darkening of the stalk, as well as easy extraction from the vine. A tool called a hydrometer is used to measure brix, or sugar (sucrose), which is indicative of the resulting alcohol level in the wine.

Timing is the premier factor during the harvest. The grower will monitor not only grape elements but also the weather forecast. Rainfall, temperature, and inclement weather on the horizon will influence the decision to harvest before, during or after Mother Nature acts up. Grape varietals have specific needs and the grower will harvest certain varietals first before moving on through the rows and vineyards based on the type of grapes cultivated there. For example, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc are generally harvested weeks before grapes for Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon.

Photo by Malcolm Carlaw

Harvest Time! How it All Happens

Eventually it will be go-time and this means it’s time to get to work! Vines are harvested mechanically or by hand during one of the busiest times in the vineyard and winery. Mechanical harvest requires a massive and highly advanced machine that drives through the vineyard and removes the clusters from the vines. These machines are driven by skilled workers and are programmed specifically for the grapes harvested. Many winemakers are unwilling to utilize machine harvesters. However, for some growers the advantages are high in environments where hand-harvesting is seen as slower and more expensive or the labor force is slim.

Hand harvesting requires a crew of workers with clippers and bins as they navigate along vine rows. They snip the clusters from the vines and place them in small bins that can be stacked onto tractors for transport to the winery.  Many growers feel that hand-harvesting is the best way to ensure quality and integrity. There is a level of control and expertise applied during a hand harvest and some growers find the idea of heavy machine in the vineyard to be an intrusion on the soil.

It is generally ideal to pick the grapes at night or early morning, when the air is cooler, to keep the harvested grapes from warming (which can cause unwanted fermentation). As the grapes are brought in they will be sorted, often by hand or with advanced technology such as a machine called an optical sorter. The sorted grapes will then undergo crushing and de-stemming before the fermentation process begins. White wine grapes and red wines grapes may be treated differently during this phase and winemaker preference begins to take priority now that the grapes are in his or her hands.

Visiting a Winery During Harvest

It is the dream of many to visit a wine vineyard during harvest, but because this is the busiest time of the year for staff, there are factors to keep in mind. Travelers that enjoy a leisurely chat in the tasting room or an inviting stroll around the winery property should choose another time of year for this type of experience. Many wineries employ a small number of staff, and the folks that run the tasting room may be the same ones that run the sorting process. There are, however, visitors that prefer to get their hands dirty and join in on a day’s work. Some wineries may allow outsiders to participate, observe or even work on site during harvest. Depending on the ideal experience, call ahead and ask to speak with a manager to determine if harvest is the best time to visit your favorite spots. Biking along country roads, enjoying the changing vine colors or watching from a distance are all ways to enjoy harvest season without reservations or expectations.

While the harvest process is similar from estate to estate, each harvest is unique and determined by personal preferences and conditions. This variety is indeed what makes wine special and evocative. For example, Ilaria from Tenuta Santa Maria Valverde in Northern Italy shares the unique process underway at her vineyard now, “We are producing Amarone by hand-picking our grapes and putting all them together in wooden boxes and later drying our red grapes in an old room used by our grandfather. Here the grapes will stay for 100 days”. This is a process that isn’t replicated elsewhere, a one-of-a-kind reason to visit during this season and a bucket list must! Tenuta Santa Maria Valverde is a part of DuVine’s Verona and Lake Garda Bike Tour.

To experience a wine harvest like an insider, join DuVine’s Tuscany Harvest Bike Tour, which includes vineyard views as well as truffles, olive oil and other culinary delights. Book now to experience the full joys of a wine harvest.

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