Now is the time of reckoning for Northern Hemisphere grape farmers, the time when they harvest the results of their previous six months of toil, sweat, and hope, which in turn is built on years, decades, centuries of effort.
Depending on vineyard location and grape type, the grape harvest extends from early September—sometimes August—through mid-October. Although late-harvest and ice wine harvests are later, the bulk of berries are being picked now and the virtues of the vintage revealed.
It all began in March when dormant vines sprang back to life—an event called “bud break.” It is a time fraught with peril. Early warm days can fool vines, only to have late frost destroy or reduce the potential crop. Hail can do the same, now and during the next stage.
Some 40-80 days after bud break flowers appear and pollination begins. Most vineyard vines are hermaphroditic, meaning each flower contains both male and female structures, which results in very efficient pollinization. In contrast, most wild grapes have male and female flowers.
Fruit set occurs shortly after flowering, followed by the first glimpses of grape clusters. The baby berries are small, green, and hard for 40-50 days. Then the grape vine miracle occurs: veraison, the changing of the color of the berries. Now the distinctive look of each berry reveals, bitterness fades, and sweetness ascends until harvest.
When to harvest is a critical decision. If you harvest too soon, your wine will be acidic and lack sweetness. Harvest late and the wine will be flaccid and lack life. How to harvest matters, too. Better wines are harvested by hand, with skilled workers taking only clusters at their peak. They return later for the slowly maturing bunches. Commodity wines often are harvested by machines which take everything, trusting that unripe, ripe, and too ripe will all work out in the final mass-produced product.
Another “when” question is day or night. Many quality growers harvest in deep night coolness or before dawn because berries are at their best, having recovered from the stresses of the hot day. In any event, berries soon arrive at the sorting tables to divulge the fate of the vintage and the winery.
Last round: Wine is magic. It is the antidote to a day that did not go as you wished it to go. It can be the exclamation point on a day that went exactly as you planned.