Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Harvesting the Grapes

With September comes harvest time in the vineyard.  From now through October, most of the grapes will be picked and crushed, juice will be put into tanks and barrels, and wine making will begin.

The actual timing of the harvest varies, year to year, depending on what types of grapes are being picked and when they have reached their peak ripeness. There are several factors that come into play when deciding when to pick; including the varietal, the acid, tannin and sugar levels of the grapes, what style of wine the winemaker will be making, and the weather.

Even the actual method of harvesting can cause serious discussions in wine circles.  Most vineyards that mass produce wine prefer to use machines to harvest the grapes, while smaller vineyards, and those with a more traditional approach, prefer handpicking.

Mechanical harvesting caught on in the U.S. during the 1960’s. This involves a machine that goes along the rows, beating, shaking, or stripping the vines.  The grapes fall onto a conveyor belt that deposits them into a waiting bin.

The disadvantages of using machines instead of people include the fact that the machine cannot distinguish ripe grapes from rotted clusters, so both get taken to the transport container.  Other vine debris is also dumped into the bin, including bugs and leaves.  In the end, the grapes must still be hand sorted to eliminate those that are rotted or unripe.  Grape skins, which are fragile, may also be broken or damaged when machine picked.  This can cause oxidization or an unwanted amount of color the juice.  Also, there are many areas where mechanical pickers cannot be used because of the terrain.

The benefits of using machines to do the harvest mainly have to do with cost and quantity.  A machine can run 24 hours a day, harvesting anywhere from 75 to over 200 tons of grapes.

Hand harvesting also has its advantages and disadvantages.  Again, cost and quantity can be figured into the disadvantage column.  But the advantages include gentler handling of the fruit and a keen eye as to what is ripe and ready for picking. Grapes are put into lugs or containers when picked and set at the end of rows to be gathered and placed on trailers or truck beds for their journey to the winery or harvest shed. And hand picking increases the number of people employed during the harvest.

Once the grapes have been sorted, they may or may not be destemmed.  Depending on the type of grape and the type of wine to be made, grapes may go directly into a wine press.

While crushing brings about images of an “I Love Lucy’ episode, feet are seldom used.  Instead, the grapes are placed into a wine press and gently crushed with controlled pressure.  This crushing breaks open the grapes, allowing the juices to flow. The grape juice then runs into a waiting tank.

Once crushing has been completed, it is time to start the primary fermentation and another season of winemaking begins.

Harvest can last from a few days, to a couple of months, depending on the grapes and the size of the vineyard.  Once the grapes are all in, a party is usually held to celebrate the conclusion of the growing season, and to thank those who took part in this exhilarating tradition of bringing in the grape harvest.

Now pour a glass and enjoy the fruits of the wine harvest!

~ Joy