Its that time again, harvest in our favorite neck of the woods - California wine country. This year is shaping up to be a bountiful, but late maturing harvest...but more on that in a future post. Here's some background on the sequence of a typical harvest, and what happens at a typical winery.
The harvest of Cabernet, Zinfandel and Syrah grapes used to make red wines typically begins in September in California wine country, extending to October in cooler areas where grapes have a longer growing season.
Producers of white wines such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc will often start harvesting these grapes 2-6 weeks before the red wine grapes are harvested. The average harvest occurs over a 40 to 60 day period. Attention to detail is critical, as most winemakers will tell you that the characteristics, and potential, of a wine are determined more by what happens on the vine than what happens in the wine cellar after the grapes are picked.
Winemakers and vineyard managers walk down each row of vines, picking grapes, tasting them, and noting the texture and juice levels in each cluster. Sure, there are tools to measure sugar and acidity levels, but increasingly wine makers are using old world techniques such as tasting and touching the grapes to determine the optimal level of ripeness, and thus when to begin the harvest.
In most small family run wineries, seasonal workers pick the grapes by hand. The grapes are cut from the vines using a small knife with a curved blade. The grapes are then brought to the winery, crushed and destemmed (stems and twigs are removed, often by hand).
Once they have been destemmed and crushed, each lot of wine—skins, seeds and juice—is moved to its own stainless tank where natural yeasts are added to jump start the fermentation process (e.g. how the sugar in the grape juice is converted into alcohol - more on that next month).
Big tanks of wine may ferment up to 4 weeks, with the winery using refrigerated tanks to slow down the rate of fermentation – hoping to enhance flavor and complexity that way while avoiding harsh elements. I'll post an update on Napa and Sonoma harvests shortly.
Cheers! The Wine-Oceros.Food and Drink