WineInk: Fruits of Labor
Harvest season begins
It’s hard to believe, but September is here.
That may mean different things to different people: back to school for some, the end of summer for others, and for those of us here in Aspen, it is the most beautiful month of the year. But if you’re in the wine business, September means harvest season.
Around the globe, in that fertile band of the northern hemisphere that sits between, let’s call it 30- and 50-degrees latitude, the highways are alive at night and in the early hours of the morning as vineyard workers rush to the fields to pick the 2022 vintage. Conversely, along the southern hemisphere wine belt, which includes countries like Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina, the winemakers are just now beginning their growing season as they await bud break on the vines in this, their springtime. It is all in how the earth turns and tilts.
Harvest season is both the most challenging and the most exciting time of year for winemakers as they get the opportunity to see, and taste, what Mother Nature has provided them for the new vintage. From the western wine growing regions of the United States and Canada, and now northern Mexico, to the traditional, Old-World wine regions of Spain, France, Italy and Germany to emerging grape growing nations like China and the United Kingdom, September is the start of the process that can last as long as two months as they bring in the grapes to the wineries.
For producers of high-end and premium wines, the first criteria of a successful harvest will be the quality of the fruit. Has nature been kind and provided perfect growing conditions to allow the grapes to ripen properly? Will the sugar levels and flavors be in line with the winemaker’s vision? Or have the vagaries of climate, heat, rain, frost and yes, even hail, over the previous months created hardships for the vines that will influence quality?
The second criteria is how many tons of grapes will the harvest yield? Wine, like other agricultural commodities, is a business of supply and demand. The amount of wine you can produce, whether you are a small artisanal winery or a multi-national mega producer, will correlate directly to how many grapes you can harvest in a season. For producers of bulk and inexpensive wines, yield often supersedes quality as the number one criterion.
Of course, there are variations globally, and even regionally, on the quality and yields generated in each vintage. These are based mostly on the climate conditions, and this summer has been a hot one for the northern hemisphere. In Bordeaux, the world’s premier wine region, the harvest season was heavily impacted, like much of the northern hemisphere, by drought conditions and record heat. Paradoxically, the heat has proven beneficial for the quality of the grapes, and the expectation is that wines from the 2022 vintage will be good, if not exceptional. But yields, the quantity of grapes harvested, is expected to be as much as 20 percent lower from historic averages in Bordeaux.
The harvest season began in the region two full weeks ago in the middle of August, making it, for many vintners, the earliest harvest in memory. The Champagne region also began the pick in the heat of August. In California, the harvest season has also been jump started early due to a hot summer. Paso Robles reported that some grapes came off the vines last week in the final days of August. There, too, the yields are expected to be down, with quality up. And in Sonoma County, the Martin Ray Winery and Vineyard tweeted out photos of Pinot Noir grapes that were picked on July 28. Again, the heat that has flowed around the planet this summer was the major factor in forcing the decision to pick grapes so early.
For winemakers, the most critical task faced each year is making a decision about which vineyards, or vineyard blocks, or even rows, to pick at just the right moment. When the grapes ripen and the sugars reach the levels the winemaker wants, it is time to harvest. Get that call wrong and all the work that has been put into the vintage is diminished.
The decision of when to pick a vineyard is usually made using both science and the senses. The science calls for a technical measuring of the sugar levels, or brix, that is evident in the grapes. The senses are about the winemaker’s personal experience of tasting the grapes and making a gut determination about the right time to harvest. A sudden spike in temperatures adds an additional element to the decision, and extreme heat may encourage an earlier pick than planned. “Get ’em off” is a phrase uttered with alacrity when the heat takes hold.
Of course, that is not always an easy proposition. For one, you need to have trained pickers available at a moment’s notice and, in the ever-squeezed global labor markets, that is proving to be a growing challenge. Second, grapes are often picked at night when they are cool and the sugars can remain consistent. With extreme heat, the temps of the grapes will not drop significantly until after the sun has set. Even the early mornings may see the grapes reach optimal temperatures for just a short time. This means more clusters must come off quicker, and, if the vineyard is being hand-picked, there is only so much that can be done to improve the speed of the pick. Picking at night also provides a more comfortable working temperature for the crews.
In general, there is a progressive order to a harvest based on the type of grapes that are being harvested. The grapes that are destined for sparkling wines, like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, 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 drunk young and fresh. While as a rule of thumb Chardonnay for still wines would follow, there are so many different styles of Chardonnay that the choice of when to pick varies greatly by region and the whims of the maker.
The reds begin with the more delicate varietals like 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,” or more time on the vines, results in higher sugars and more concentrated flavor profiles in general.
Of course, we are talking farming here, and, as any farmer can tell you, things change quickly based on the whims of weather and whatever higher power it is that controls the harvest. Most will also tell you that things are changing with global warming — that there are more seasonal variations than there were even a decade ago and that major weather events seem to be happening with greater frequency and feature greater ferocity than was once the case.
Currently, the winemakers and growers are intensely focused on the here and now of the harvest. But be sure that once the game ends, talk will again turn to the changes in climate.
So, when will you get a chance to taste the fruits of the 2022 harvest? Well, that depends on the grape and style of wine you drink. Rosé wines made from grapes being picked right now can be in your glass by next May, just in time for Rosé season. Those wines are made to be drunk young and at their freshest.
But if you are looking to hold and age a bottle of, say, fine Cabernet Sauvignon, you might not pop the cork until 2032, a decade from now. Many wineries will not even release bottles of red wine for up to three years after the vintage in which they have been harvested, as they barrel and then bottle-age the wines.
Whatever your favorite wine style, September is the month that the wines you will be drinking in the future are picked.
Andrew Will 2009 Sorella
I bought two bottles of this Washington wine from the 2009 vintage when it was first released by the Vashon Island-based Andrew Will Cellars in 2012. I remember drinking the first bottle and thinking it was spectacular, but also that it was awfully young to be sipping a limited release Bordeaux Blend. Jump ahead 10 years, and I pulled out the second bottle to celebrate nothing more than the beauty of a Saturday evening and dinner with my wife.
The wine, harvested from the renowned Champoux Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills appellation of southern Washington, had mellowed over the decade since I had last tried it. The tannins had softened, and it was a rounder wine that had a more mature mouthfeel. But the beauty was in the fruit; the berries and cherries were concentrated and complex. Each sip lingered like a never-ending basket. It was a snapshot of a vintage that happened when I was 13 years younger. I only hope I have aged as well as the Sorella.
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