Harvest is the most important time in a wine region. You hear people talking about the weather and constantly speculating about the wines from the new vintage. Soon after the harvest they change the subject to the first impressions of the juice.
However so few people talk about that moment just before the harvest, the important moment, when the winemaker needs to make the decision whether to start the harvest in the next two or three days; and in this case a half a day or even hours can be crucial.
The moment before the harvest is the one that I’ve been interested in since my first vintage in France. I was wondering, how do the winemakers valuate the maturity of the grapes? How do they recognize whether the grapes need another few days or just a day before picking?
‘Black magic’ seems to be a piece of cake comparing to the arcane of the grapes’ harvesting, especially when the winemaker needs to make the final decision, which still is a bit of a mystery for me ;)
I am intrigued and curious about this year’s picking (it’s my fourth vintage – three in Bordeaux and one in McLaren Vale and Barossa Valley ;)) and I wonder how the wines will be as the weather was amazing for the whole year!
I know the ins and outs and I have already gained some experience regarding the harvest, therefore I want to share with you some of these mysterious tricks of how to check the maturity of the grapes using just your natural instinct ;)
What helps to determine whether the grape is ripe or not? How the winemakers check the ripeness of the grapes while visiting the vineyard without any equipment? Take a close look at five elements that might help to define the level of the ripeness in the berries.
Firstly – the skin
A grape berry cut in half reveals its interior, which also will be helpful in our analysis- does the pulp departs from the skin easily or not? If you can separate the skin and the pulp easily then the grape is ripe; if not – you have to leave the berries on the vine for a little longer.
Taste the skin, bite it, if it is crunchy with flavor it might be ripe? Hard and chewy maybe over ripe?
The last part of the skin analysis is the intensity of the colour the grapes have reached so far – simply rub the skin between your fingers and see how much ‘blood’ it gives. Based on that, the winemaker can initially determine whether he can achieve the required level of intensity of the colour in the wine during maceration, or not – in this case the grapes need to stay on the vines a little longer to achieve the expected colour intensity.
Secondly: the seeds (pips)
Let’s look at pips. What colour are they – green or brown? If they are green it means the grapes need more time to mature. If the pips are brown it means the grapes are ripe.
To make sure that the berries reached full maturity, just insert the pip under your tongue (do not crush it!)- if there is a very unpleasant taste of the unripe acidity on the palate, the grapes are not ready for harvest.
Thirdly – the stems
The stems also show at what stage of the maturity the grapes are at the moment. At the early growth of the grapes and during the veraison process (when grapes are changing the coulours) the stems are green, soft and flexible; afterwards, during the ripening, they become darker and harder; the harder and browner the stalks, generally the riper the berries. Be careful the berries may be over ripe!
The fourth element: the taste
Remember to taste the berries while visiting the vineyard. It’s the best way to say whether the grapes are ripe or not. The mature grape will show a lot of fruit character, still giving a high acidity impressions in the mouth; whereas the unripe berries will be austere and very acidic on the palate.
The fifth element: the winemaker’s experience.
The experience is something you cannot get from reading even the best and the most interesting books about wine. It’s a constant and hard work of gaining the experience; it takes years and thousands of hours spent in the vineyard on studying the vines, tasting the wine grapes and learning from own mistakes.
And only this experience combined with knowledge, ability of making decisions and taking the risk, allows the winemaker to give the green light to start the harvest; the decision, which may determine the quality of the final wine.
I have described five elements, which you have to consider while thinking about the maturity of the grapes. Surely a lot of work is done in the laboratory, where the berries are carefully analyzed and measured with the microscope. The winemaker gets the spreadsheet with detailed information on the pH, the level of acidity and sugar etc from the berries being grown in the different part of the vineyard. That gives a proper picture of the level of the ripening in the whole parcel.
However, it is up to the winemaker to take the risk and leave the berries a little longer on the vines to let them ripen more, or to pick them without the risk. It is him, who is responsible for the quality of the fruit and, later on, the quality of the final wine.
Remember that when you walk, taste and analyze the grapes in a vineyard you may harvest the top, the bottom, the middle or the edges at different times as the vineyard orientation creates uneven ripeness.
I passed my first ‘test of maturity’ few years ago. I’ve experienced four harvests and hundreds (thousands!) of walks through the vineyards during last few years. I love to check the berries, their skins, pips and stalks, and to taste them to say whether they have ripened fully or not. But I am not making the final decisions; it’s just a way of having fun and staying up to date with the grapes I’ve been taking care of for the whole year.
I hope you will try these tricks and let me know whether you enjoyed your ‘harvest preparation’ walk in the vineyard. Perhaps you know other ways of checking the ripening level of the grapes without using the professional equipment? If so, please write a comment below and share them with me and other readers – I will be happy to learn something new.