Harvest Season: It’s On!
August 29, 2018
It may be hard to believe for those of you who are still in a summer mode, but the harvest of the 2018 vintage is already in process. Yes, with Labor Day still ahead of us, armies of pickers are already laboring in the dead of night and before the sun rises to harvest the grapes from the vines.
Throughout most of the Northern Hemisphere and in vineyards from Burgundy to Napa, the most exciting moments of any vintage are about to take place. This is the time of year when winemakers and vineyard managers discover whether they have been able to weather the weather. To find out if the decisions they made in the spring and summer about irrigation, canopy management and all of the other intricate issues that can affect the vintage were correct. Sleepless nights give way to sleepless mornings, as those who make the call about when the time is just right for the workers to descend into the fields stress over those decisions.
In what may come as a surprise, though perhaps it shouldn't, the heat of this summer made for some early picking decisions across much of the northern wine world. In Germany, the first grapes were picked Aug. 6, which, according to the German Wine Institute, is the earliest opening day of harvest on record. That is nearly three weeks before the average and two days before any previous pick. These grapes are used to make a sweet young wine called Federweisser, which is a German tradition.
In France, producers in Alsace and Champagne also called for early picks of their white wine grapes due to the effect of the summer sun, which provided heat spikes in June and July. Champagne winemakers began to pick chardonnay grapes for their sparkling wines on Aug.0 21 and the grapes in Alsace, used in Cremant for the region's sparkling wines, began to come off the vines this week. Burgundy also has seen workers in the fields since the third week of August. In Bordeaux, a bit further south, while vintners are still recovering from the effects of hail storms that pounded the vineyards on May 21 and May 26, wreaking havoc, they remain optimistic.
While there are concerns throughout Europe about having a workforce large enough to support the needs of the 2018 harvest, the good news is that yields are expected to rebound after the disturbing reductions in 2017. A plethora of conditions combined to make last year's global harvest the smallest in some 50 years. In fact, due to dramatic declines in Italy and France and the United States, the global harvest numbers in 2017 were the lowest since 1961.
Of course, closer to home the concerns about fire and smoke are still on the minds of vintners in California, Oregon and Washington. In early October last year, the wine regions of Napa and Sonoma were decimated by some of the largest and most destructive fires in California history. So far this year the vineyards have not been in the direct path of the fires, but throughout the West, drought and high temperatures remain and smoke has been a constant in many wine regions. Smoke taint is still a still a concern and will be until all the grapes are off the vines and in the wineries.
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On the West Coast, picking began just about on schedule in most areas, with the white grapes for sparkling wines coming off the vines first. In general, there is a progressive order to a harvest based on the type of grapes that are grown. The grapes used in sparkling wines are picked first, before their sugar levels get too high. Next up are the aromatic whites, the pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc and riesling (though not the sweeter, late-harvest riesling), wines that are meant to be drank young. While, as a rule of thumb, chardonnay would follow, there are so many different styles of chardonnay that the choice of when to pick varies greatly.
The reds begin with the delicate pinot noir and then move into varietals like zinfandel, sangiovese and even merlot, before the longer hanging and hardier cabernet sauvignon comes off the vines. A longer "hang time" results in higher sugars and more concentrated flavor profiles in general.
If you have never been to wine country during harvest, it's worth a visit. To actually see and feel the buzz that comes with the season will give you a new and different perspective on what goes into the production of each and every bottle.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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