Rhythm of Harvest
Harvest season, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, is ending folks! I’ve gotten the opportunity to work with a few different winemakers & grape growers the last couple of months, and it has been interesting to hear of the various nuances to the vineyard from firsthand accounts. You can read about the life cycle of a vine all day long, but it’s very different to experience it in real time. I’ll be discussing the challenges that grape growers face when trying to keep up with the rhythm of harvest, and chat about some varietals that possess a rhythm of their own. Hope you brought your dancing shoes because we’ll be doing more than a simple two-step!
There's a rhythm to grape growing. Winemakers & grape growers must find a way to match the tempo of the vineyard before harvest season rolls around. A harvest where the grapes are picked too early will result in bitter, underdeveloped tannins. If you pick too late in the season, there is a risk of excessive sugar levels unbalancing the final wine. Finding a way to stay in tune with the vineyard, the terroir, combat pests and prepare for weather anomalies is essential for protecting the life cycle of the vine. Some grapes will forever march to the beat of their own drum and provide a wealth of challenges unique to themselves. BUT when one syncs into the rhythm of harvest, they lay the groundwork for a successful vintage before the winemaking process begins.
Harvest takes place approximately 1 ½ months to 2 months after veraison (when wine grapes shift from green to their classic red & gold hues), when the grapes have achieved a desired sugar level & physiological maturity (phenolic compounds such as tannins, color, flavor, aroma, etc.). The annual cycle of growth culminates in the fall, but it is key to remember that the seasons are reversed between the northern & southern hemispheres. Though we associate the harvest with fall, harvesting can stretch into early winter in cooler climate wine regions where varieties are likely to ripen later as a result.
Ever noticed that bottles of whites & rose from South Africa or New Zealand will be on the 2022 vintage while 2021 will still be the most recent vintage in our AVAs? That's because the harvest season, and subsequent bottling post-vinification, happen at opposite times for both hemispheres! I remember sorting through a wine delivery early in my career and geeking out when I noticed all my southern hemisphere white wines were on the 2022 vintage now. I hadn't really paid attention to that shift in vintages from either hemisphere in real time, so it was a revelation for me. It was all I talked about with my team for the rest of service, though none of them found it nearly as fascinating as I did, ha!
Composing the tune: Viticultural Practices
I'll continue to use musical references to describe the harvest season, so strap in! Growers can approach viticulture in a multitude of ways. In doing so, they create the main melody in the composition of the vineyards’ tune. No one method is better than the other, per se, but it is up to the grower to determine what makes the most sense for their vineyard & the varieties they are trying to produce. Many of these practices can help combat certain vineyard challenges we’ll discuss later. Take a look at some of the practices below that winemakers can opt for when tending to the vineyard:
Organic Viticulture – To put it simply: this is grape growing without the use of manufactured fertilizers or pesticides. Swap the fertilizers for compost and manure or skip the herbicides with a little extra mowing.
Integrated Pest Management – A targeted approach to dealing with pests in a vineyard that are causing harm or damage, without affecting those that may be beneficial.
Biodynamic Viticulture – While there isn’t any magic involved, there is an addition of metaphysical elements to this practice considered to be “more organic than organic”. The primary proponents of this practice include using the alignment of the planets & phases of the moon to direct the course of work done in the vineyard.
Sustainable Viticulture – This practice is a little less black and white than organic viticulture and prefers to operate in shades of gray to protect the environment while producing grapes. The goal is to leave the land for the next generation in better condition than it was when it was found. Sustainability directly addresses the concept of global warming & effects of greenhouse gas emissions unlike organic & biodynamic practices.
Notes of Dissonance: Pests, weather & more
There are many elements working against growers leading up to the harvest season. From destructive pests to unpredictable rain patterns diluting grape sugars, there is no end to the dissonant notes seeking to disrupt the harmony of the vineyard. Weather conditions such as wind, rain, fog, and shifts in temperature all have adverse or beneficial effects on the vineyard.
Rain is particularly unwelcome during the harvest, when water swells the berries and dilutes their sugar content. Wind is an interesting element since it can put strain on a vine’s ability to produce healthy fruit, but it also reduces humidity & blows pests away.
Fog is a weather anomaly that though troublesome, can also yield some incredibly desired effects in the vineyard. It can bring a cooling element to otherwise hotter climates or create the ideal conditions for the Botrytis cinera fungus (known as gray mold when causing chaos or noble rot when purposely developed on fully ripened white grapes). Riesling tends to be the grape varietal most famously associated with Botrytis. The grape is subjected to excess amounts of moisture then intense cold repeatedly to induce botrytis on purpose. The classic petrol & honey notes are intensified as a result, as well as concentrating the sugars of the grape to produce wines that are off-dry or sweet in style.
Anyone who witnessed a winged creature trying to make a cameo in one of my recent videos, know that I despise insects of any kind. Absolutely not my cup of tea! Most grape growers & winemakers would agree, at least in reference to certain pests that can spell death for a vineyard. Phylloxera, a tiny louse insect, is likely the most well-known grapevine malady that destroyed many of the world’s vineyards in the 1800s. The solution to combat the pest was to graft varieties on to American rootstock which had a natural resistance to the pest. This is common practice and allows this particular pest to be less of a nuisance nowadays. Other pests include the soil-based nematode, and many animals that are attracted to sweet fruits such as deer, birds and wild pigs. One pest to keep an eye on, especially here on the east coast, is the spotted lantern fly. I could probably dedicate a whole post just to the damage this new kid on the block has caused for producers out here in North Carolina alone. Look up the dastardly thing, he's a menace to society that must be stopped!
There is so much to consider during the harvest season, and it's not just about picking the best grapes. I was reading earlier about a producer who used football as an analogy to what we experience drinking wine. Football players train for days leading up to a televised game, and what we hoot & holler about on screen is only represents a small portion of what went into preparing for that game. The same is true when we sit down to crack open a bottle of wine---we are only experiencing the finished product and none of the challenges that went into creating the vintage we are drinking. Food for thought, or rather, wine for thought, ha!
GRAPE VARIETIES WITH RHYTHM!
I mentioned grapes with rhythm earlier in the post, and this is in reference to varietals who have both a rhythm in the vineyard or a rhythm on the palate that is fun to tango with. Promise me you'll sip and swirl on these varietals anytime the harvest season rolls around....OR when your holiday festivities need a facelift only wine can provide! All grapes have a rhythm, but these are a few that I immediately think of when sipping & swirling:
Riesling - a grape varietal that spans from bone dry up in the region of Alsace to off dry or sweet in areas like Germany & Australia. Some of the most classic interpretations of this varietal are vinified with botrytis cinera (noble rot) as a key component to its harvest.
Pinot Noir - the resident diva of the wine world. Pinot Noir is not a varietal to take on lightly as a grape grower or winemaker. Yields can be quite small at harvest time, resulting in smaller production overall, and that's if the grape has mutated into something else first (I'm looking at you Pinot Blanc & Pinot Grigio!). Pinot Noir likes to follow the beat of its own drum, and unless the terroir is perfect, you can anticipate this grape to be the problem child of a vineyard.
Chenin Blanc - this varietal is interesting because it is truly a chameleon. Chenin Blanc can be whatever you want it to be, when you want it to be. Sparkling, still, off dry, bone dry, and full of vibrant aromatics every time, there isn't much holding Chenin Blanc back. The one constant for the varietal is how acidity comes in waves for this one. It gently reminds you through the drinking experience that there is more to it than the first sip, and I'm here for that!