Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Harvest Time, and the Living Is Easy

Among the many questions we get asked by visitors and reporters during vintage is how we decide when it is time to pick our grapes.  Given that the flavor of grapes has a murky connection at best to the flavors we perceive in a finished wine made from them, it is a question I often wondered about when I first came into the winery as well.  Failing an unexpected and catastrophic weather event (early frost, hurricane, biblical flood, locusts, frogs, etc.), there are a few factors that come into play:

  • Visual:  No surprise that most of the decision-making is based on going out into the vineyards and looking at the vines and grapes.  What surprised me most was that with Pinot Noir, one indicator of sugar and flavor potential (i.e. whether it will accumulate or mature any further) is the appearance of the grapes.  If they have the matte appearance you see below, as opposed to a bright sheen, they are not going to ripen any further and we’ll plan on harvesting.

 I Like This Matte Finish
Pinot Noir grapes that have completed ripening.
  • Health:  Depending on the growing season and the weather during harvest, there are a number of health concerns we look for in tasting the grapes and making harvesting decision.  A visual inspection might reveal presence of botrytis, a mold that dries the grapes out and contributes very distinct flavors.  Some wines are made in a style that benefits from botrytis, so long as the infection concentrates sugars and flavors without opening the clusters to sour (think vinegar) rot.  We are often hoping to keep our fruit as clean as possible, however, and try to avoid any botrytis influence.
  • Sugar/Acid Balance:  In growing regions where ripening is all but assured, harvest decisions are sometimes made solely based on reaching a certain sugar level.  In the Finger Lakes sugar accumulation is always a bit of a challenge in vinifera grapes, especially given that it takes a surprisingly large amount of sugar for fermentation to produce a wine with normal alcoholic strength (when we harvest grapes they are nearly candy-sweet).  Even in a year such as 2010, where we did not have to worry about sugar ripeness in the grapes, we were still out tasting frequently to account for how the sugar was being balanced out by the acid left in the grapes.
  • Taste:  What may seem most obvious, but actually comes near the end in making harvest decisions, is how the grapes taste.  Tricia already wrote of the flavors we are seeking in gewürztraminer grapes, but every grape has characteristics we taste for and green flavors we hope we can wait out before harvesting.  Regardless of sugar level, ripeness of flavors can lag or speed ahead of what we might expect and we have to be prepared for that.  We notice whether the seeds pop out of the grape or are still covered in a gelatinous material.  With red grapes, we even taste the seeds to see if they are bitter and unripe or nutty and chocolate.
  • Harvesting Crew:  Securing a harvesting crew or a harvesting machine and operators is oftentimes the greatest challenge we are faced with in making harvest decisions.  Especially if a day of rain is imminent, securing a harvesting group right before can be akin to a political miracle given all the competition from other vineyards for the same crew.

Even barring a catastrophic weather event, everything mentioned above might end up going out the window.  If a long spell of rain settles in and pushes up disease pressure on our vines that can force our hand regardless of flavor.  If cold weather and/or a standard-issue frost shuts down sugar accumulation and takes off the leaves, that can also end up bringing in our grapes early.  Ultimately, this is what keep us humble as winemakers… but also makes the job so interesting time and time again.

By: Kelby Russell, Winemaking Team

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