Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk | AspenTimes.com

Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk

Kelly J. Hayes
Aspen Times Weekly

September and October can be magical months in the vineyards and now that summer is winding down, it is a great time to take a trip to wine country.

This is the season when wineries in the Northern Hemisphere are gearing up for the harvest, which is somewhat akin to the time when a mother prepares for a birth. There is relief that the grapes have come through the season healthy, nervousness about the harvest to come, and anticipation about the wine that eventually will be bottled.

It is also a time when the craziness of the busy tourist season, that time when the tasting rooms and parking lots of the most popular wineries become chock full, begins to ease. There are still people around, especially on the weekends, but the traffic and the frenetic feel gives way to a more natural atmosphere. Tractors replace tourist buses and trucks full of vineyard workers replace the limousines filled with over-served and sometimes obnoxious visitors

They call it wine tourism and for many wineries and wine regions, the emphasis is on the tourism part, especially during the summer. But head to wine country in the fall, and you’ll find the focus to be on getting the grapes in on time and in good condition. After all, the business of wine country is making wine.

In California’s Sonoma County, the first grapes have already been picked. On Monday, Aug. 22, at J Vineyards and Winery near Healdsburg, about a ton and a half of Pinot Noir grapes were picked in what is thought to be the first harvest of the season in the region. The grapes, which were described as “small but concentrated,” will be used to make the sparkling wines that J is known for. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes, which are the basis for sparkling Champagne-style wines, are always the first grapes of the season to be picked. This is to ensure that the grapes have low brix, or sugar levels, which is required for these types of wines.

Next up are the rest of the white varietals, followed by the red grapes, which can hang long on the vine, building their levels of sugar until the winemaker deems them ready. The harvest will last into October this year – and that could be late October.

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While much of the country has been sweltering under one of the hottest summers on record (how would you like to be a vintner in the Texas Hill Country where temperatures have hovered above 100 degrees for much of the summer?), further west June and July saw more than their fair share of cool, cloudy days. And remember that April/May bout of snowstorms that kept us unseasonably cool — well, down right cold? Those storms hit the vineyards of the West Coast first and rained heavily on the vines.

The result has been that the 130,000 acres or so that are under vine in Napa, Sonoma and Lake counties, the largest concentration of wine grapes in the country, is behind schedule. To use the birthing analogy again, they have missed their due date. This year, assuming the weather continues its current warm and dry phase, the harvest will be a little smaller than usual but could produce some excellent juice if the grapes are given extensive “hang-time” on the vines.

Of course, you don’t have to go to Napa and Sonoma to see a harvest and to have a good time. The closest option would be to take a fall sojourn to Colorado wine country. Just a couple hours away, you can experience the 2011 harvest season in the Grand Valley.

The state’s oldest wine festival, the Colorado Mountain Winefest, kicks in September 15-18. It offers visitors a great way to get in the spirit of the harvest season, along with a series of dinners and tastings that will let you experience the wines of the region.

You can find out more at http://www.coloradowinefest.com.

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