The Grape Harvest

Pinot Noir HarvestOften, people ponder over the “secret” to making a great wine. In fact, there is no “one” thing that determines a wine’s quality or taste. Winemaking involves hundreds of decisions before the grapes even start to ferment! The way a vine is pruned, when grapes are harvested, and so on, play crucial roles in the wine ultimately bottled.

We won’t get too deep into viticulture in this post, but the way a winemaker prunes her vines affects the yield and vigor of a plant, which is linked to the concentration of flavor in the grapes. (The more “vigorous” the vine, generally the more grapes it produces, the more grapes it produces, the less concentrated the flavor in each grape, the less concentrated the flavor in each grape, the less concentrated the flavor of the wine.) A winemaker or vineyard manager also manages the vine canopy (grape leaves) throughout the harvest, to allow for more, or less photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is directly responsible for a vine’s vigor (e.g. the quantity of grapes the vine produces). As the grapes ripen, their acidity levels drop, and their sugar levels increase. This process is known as veraison.

Once veraison begins, the time for harvest is near, so a winemaker keeps an especially close eye on her grapes. She takes daily samples of grape sugar and acidity levels, as well as a host of other things, so she knows when it is the optimal time to start the harvest. She has decided, in advance, whether to harvest by hand (with a team of pickers) or by machine. This is one of the most important decisions a winery makes. Hand-harvesting is significantly pricier (think of all the labor cost!) – but it also gives the winery a lot more control over their product. Machine harvesting is much faster, and much less expensive, but a machine has no control over what gets picked. Hand-harvesting allows pickers to select only the ripe, healthy grapes. A machine picks everything, including unripe grapes, leaves, and anything that may be hiding in the vines.

Once the grapes are picked, a winemaker must decide whether to sort the grapes or place them directly into the press (for white wines) or the tank (for red wines). If the winemaker decides to sort the grapes, workers often do this with aid from a sorting table (a conveyor-belt-like machine that allows grapes to pass slowly from crate to tank while workers remove any unwanted items like leaves or undesirable grapes.)

At this point, the grapes enter their next phase in the press or the tank — the harvest is complete and the work of the winery begins!

Photo courtesy of The Bordeaux Wine Council