Andrew McCreery, d’Vine Gourmet
Many eloquent words have been used to describe the annual grape harvest. All of the elements coming together to determine when the moment is just right for the grape to be plucked from the vine thus ending nature’s roll in the process of filling your glass. The handoff from nature to man of the grape is one of the most fascinating and oft overlooked moment in wine making. The intersection of so many things, some controllable and some beyond control, that if properly orchestrated can give you a great glass of wine.
As vitis viniferia (Latin: vines for wine) is harvested on an annual cycle weather is one of the most key elements in determining harvest. If the weather is cooperating harvest will take place at the time when the acids and sugars are in the appropriate balance in the grape. When the weather is challenging then many hard choices get made that are as much skill as luck in making. Frost, hail and rain can all devastate grapes. A hard frost can kill the foliage, shut down the vine and grapes seriously disrupting harvest. Hail can knock the grapes off and damage clusters that manage to hang on. Even if they just damage a percentage, say 25% of the grapes, that can mean the difference between a profitable year or not. However, rain is the main enemy of grapes. Grapes act as a reservoir for the vine and are like sponges soaking up as much water as possible. The flavor that was in the grape, sugars, acids, etc., can easily be diluted. Like adding water into your wine glass the effects are very pronounced. So if a weather front is coming in do you harvest grapes that are perhaps not ready or do you ride out the storm and hope you can allow enough time after the rains to let the grapes dry out? Entire vintages have been case studies in making the right choice.
Labor in the form of harvesters, truckers and winery personnel work together, hopefully in harmony, to bring the grapes in pristine shape to the winery. All of this process is controlled by the winemaker and vineyard managers working to time each part together. Night harvests are a cool and gentle way to bring the grapes in, however, few wineries have the own team of harvesters. Most rely on groups of workers that move from vineyard to vineyard. The top harvesting teams and companies are elite groups that are highly sought after. Hard work and the fatigue that comes with it are also a factor. The capacity of a winery is also a key factor in the harvest. Once the grapes come in they must all have a place to go. Moving vast amounts of juice and wine from vessel to vessel requires the artistry to determine when and the logistical capacity to determine how.
So behind that glass of wine you swirl at your table is a fascinating story of cultivation, harvest, winemaking, logistics and distribution. All of these factors can finally be judged when the glass is raised to your lips.