|Physiological ripeness is just one of many factors influencing the optimal time to pick.|
|Harvest Happenings 2003
Grape stomps, harvest tours, festivals and other ways to celebrate the fruits of fall.
Napa vintner Tom Rinaldi is in a hurry. The Provenance Vineyards winemaker has 620 tons of Merlot and Cabernet racing to maturity on a hot, dry day in the second week of September, but his keys are locked in the pickup.
AAA evidently is not an option because he grabs the trailer hitch and pounds the driver's side window, which explodes in a hail of shrapnel-sharp glass fragments.
Some of the fragments slice Rinaldi's thumb, which bleeds profusely. He wraps the digit in a paper towel, but the rapidly spreading red blotch suggests a couple of stitches might be in order. Rinaldi shakes his head and shrugs. "I got grapes to taste," he says, then barrels down the row of Merlot, hardly pausing to pop grapes in his mouth.
Urgency and stress are the rule in wine country on the eve of harvest, and the condition of the grapes often takes precedence even over first aid. The point at which a vintner chooses between picking or waiting is a moment of truth that has a tremendous impact on wine quality. Incompetent estates can ruin good grapes, and production techniques have a dramatic impact on style. But winemaking legerdemain can never transform poor grapes into good wine.
Every decision made in the vineyard affects the end product. But a winegrower's decision to harvest or to wait represents his final opportunity to influence the ultimate character and quality of the grapes. Before picking, estates weigh a number of factors, which vary according to the region, type of grape and vintage conditions.
Some of the considerations are technical, such as the levels of sugar, pH and acid. As grapes ripen, herbal and vegetal flavors diminish and fruit character intensifies. Tannin and acidity soften and potential alcohol increases as vines produce more sugar.
To judge these gradations, estates test juice samples. To obtain a true reading, however, it's essential to get a random assortment of the site's grapes, collected from different parcels and from different exposures of the vineyard. Depending on the orientation of the rows, for example, the bunches more exposed to afternoon sun can ripen faster.
Some varieties typically show pronounced variation even within bunches. Many ripe Zinfandel grapes will be plump and fleshy while their bunchmates shrivel into raisins, which are loaded with sugar. Juice samples must include a representative proportion of raisins, or else vintners will find that the finished wine has much more alcohol than anticipated.
Winemakers also look inside their grapes. As the season advances, seeds progress from green to brown, with a corresponding decrease in astringency. "Seed color is very important," says Lamberto Frescobaldi, who oversees production of about 600,000 cases per year for Marchesi de'Frescobaldi in Tuscany. "If the seeds are green, they'll release harsh tannin [during fermentation and maceration]."
Rinaldi also focuses on seed texture. "As they get close [to ripeness], they'll crunch like Chiclets," he says.
Visual cues from the leaves are also crucial because there's a point in the season at which grapes stop ripening. With the onset of cooler weather in the fall, vines start shutting down, and leaves that were verdant green begin to lose luster and turn yellow. By then, even with less than ideal ripeness, little may be gained by waiting.
"The secret is just knowing your vineyards and knowing how far you can push them while [the grapes are] still hanging on the vine," says Australian vintner Rolf Binder, who is best-known for Shiraz bottlings for labels such as Veritas, Two Hands and Magpie. Binder expects Shiraz grapes to have a bit of shrivel and sag when at peak ripeness, like a balloon that has lost some air.
Every region has distinct challenges during harvest. Jim Clendenen, winemaker at Au Bon Climat in Santa Barbara, Calif., also makes Pinot Noir from Oregon and Sonoma's Russian River. "The criteria I use to pick don't change, but the reality does," he says, meaning that it's necessary to pick early enough in Russian River to preserve acidity, and late enough in Oregon to diminish it.
Sugar and pH measurements tell producers if they're getting close. But the final decision is based on tasting the grapes, gauging the intensity and character of flavors as well as the ripeness of tannin and acidity. "The only way to do it is walk the vineyard, to get out there and walk and taste," says Ed Sbragia, senior vice president and wine master at Beringer Vineyards. There is no single "right" answer about when to pick. "It's a lot like trying to decide the optimal day and second to open a wine," explains Sbragia.
Notions about ripeness have undergone drastic changes through the years. A strong case can be made that the reason so many winegrowing regions have upped quality is because estates have learned to focus on grapes' flavor, rather than on lab readings. Napa Valley is a prime example. Its relatively recent emergence as a preeminent source of Cabernet is mostly a result of vintners waiting for riper flavors.
Even in a tradition-bound region like Bordeaux, styles change with the times. In the 19th century, producers there often picked grapes for red wines at 9 degrees potential alcohol; only within the past 20 years have top estates routinely harvested with at least 13 degrees alcohol potential.
In the past, many winemakers' prevailing sense of appropriate ripeness was partly a result of making a virtue of a necessity. Because growers lacked the viticultural savvy to consistently harvest grapes with optimal physiological maturity, less ripeness was accepted as the norm; classic was simply synonymous with typical.
That said, waiting for additional ripeness is not without risk. Producers can lose a sizable portion of their crop in hours to a flock of birds. Other creatures too love to feast on ripe grapes. But harvest storms, such as those that wreaked havoc in some of Europe's finest appellations recently, pose the gravest threat. Not only can rain dilute the wine, it can ruin an entire crop by causing widespread rot.
Some varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, have naturally thick skins that are rot resistant. And modern estates have access to anti-fungal sprays. Still, harvest storms can be a nightmare. Marchesi de'Frescobaldi, for example, makes its top wines from Sangiovese, which after rain can swell, burst and rot. "At harvest, the health of the grapes is always a factor. You have to balance the desire for more alcohol with the risk of rain," Frescobaldi says.
An entire year's income rides on the decision of when to pick. But that decision is a lot like the gun shot at the start of a race -- it's only the beginning of the real work.
Grapes are harvested by hand or by machine. With either method, the key is to be as gentle as possible and protect the integrity of the skins. If the skins crack, or grapes get crushed before they get to the winery, unpleasant flavors may be extracted as juice contacts mold or stems.
Picking crews usually consist of eight to 10 people. Bunches are cut from the vine and dropped into containers, which typically hold about 30 or 35 pounds (if the receptacles are overfilled, grapes can get crushed). To minimize damage to the grapes, some estates transport those small containers directly to the winery.
Other producers dump grapes into larger bins, capable of holding several hundred or thousands of pounds. Higher quality estates make a point of removing underripe or mildewed grapes and MOG (matter other than grapes), either at sorting tables near the crush pad or in the vineyard.
Most top-flight producers presort weeks before they pick by performing what's known as a green harvest (the removal of bunches), typically in July and August in the Northern Hemisphere. Green harvesting maximizes concentration, since smaller crops ripen faster with more intensity of flavor. And it fosters more consistent ripeness levels at harvest, since growers target for elimination those bunches lagging behind in maturity.
Picking by hand is the only option for especially steep hillside vineyards. A good crew can bring in about 2 tons per hour, whereas machines can be three times faster. Mechanical harvesters do best with sturdy, thick-skinned grapes such as Cabernet because they function by essentially shaking berries off the stem. More fragile varieties, like Pinot Noir, get damaged relatively easily. Machines were once vastly inferior to skilled crews, but today's equipment, which ranges in price from about $80,000 to $300,000, has improved dramatically.
"You'd be quite amazed by modern machine harvesters and how gentle they are," says Binder.
Some devices include blowers (that remove leaves) and sorting trays (to separate MOG). But preharvest preparation is a prerequisite for good results -- underripe, damaged and diseased fruit must be dropped and the canopy needs to be properly positioned.
Except in unseasonably cool weather, estates often have machine harvesters in the vineyard hours before first light. Picking crews typically start around sunrise and will stop if the grapes grow too warm (cool grapes are less likely to get damaged in the bins and are much easier to handle during fermentation).
Sometimes, logistics force the hand of the winemaker. Producers with an assortment of sites and varieties expect their harvest to be spread out over weeks or even months. But in some vintages, harvests are unusually condensed, with everything reaching peak ripeness around the same (frantic) period.
In that case, estates might run out of fermentation vats and be forced to leave grapes hanging longer than is ideal, or pick something too soon in order to avoid a logjam. But if everything goes well and nerves stay steady, the winemaker calls the shots, rather than logistics or the weather. In 1997, Frescobaldi picked the grapes for its Brunello di Montalcino Castelgiocondo on Oct. 22, about 15 days later than in "normal" years. The grapes were healthy and the skies looked clear, so they took the risk.
That decision helped them to bring in grapes with ideal ripeness, and subsequently make a great wine. But the waiting is never easy. "In Las Vegas [at last fall's California Wine Experience], many of the winemakers went to the casinos," says Lamberto Frescobaldi. "But I feel that I gamble every year in the vineyard."
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