Grape harvesting season is the pinnacle event for wineries and vineyards across the world. North of the equator this occurs between the months of August and November, but down South you can expect it to take place sometime between February and April. As the grapes ripen in the summer up until the time of harvest, the variable conditions greatly affect the quality of the wine in that year’s given vintage.
Deciding when to pick the grapes is key. Sugar and acidity must be balanced, not only for the palette, but these affect the alcohol content of the wine as well. Stems, the wine skin, and the seeds all play a part to determine the tannins present, and all of this very time sensitive work. Throw in the variable of mother nature where too much rain, a hail storm, or a frost can wipe out an entire year’s crop, and you begin to understand the complexities of and true art form required of vintners.
Traditionally, harvesting was done by hand, but many vineyards have transitioned to mechanical harvesting for speed and cost savings. However, this increases the need for a good sorting as machines cannot distinguish between ripe, immature, or rotten grapes, or sort out bugs, leaves, and dirt. This is now also mechanized by using optical laser sorters that can determine undesirable grapes and debris and clear it from a conveyor belt by means of a blast from an air cannon.
While most of the mass produced wines have gone to mechanical harvesting, high quality wine producers still use the preferred method of hand harvesting. Workers armed with nothing but a sharp set of shears and a basket or bin make their way through the rows of grapes selecting only those deemed ready to harvest. This method is also imposed on steep hillsides where mechanical harvesting is impossible, such as in Germany’s Mosel Region. These grapes too must be sorted – you may be familiar with the French term triage.
Once sorted, the grapes are ready for destemming and crushing. While there was a time when many feet made light work, it’s highly unlikely you have consumed wine that was crushed underfoot. Wineries today use automated crusher-destemmers which crush the grapes open to expose the flesh and pulp but not the tannin heavy stems and seeds.
Wine harvest season is a perfect time to travel and experience first-hand both traditional and modern methods worldwide. Whether it’s the steep hillsides of the Mosel Region in Germany, the vineyards along the river banks in Bordeaux, or the beautiful wineries in Italy, these are trips that oenophiles will never forget. It’s not too late to plan your perfect getaway to wine country. In any country.
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