Wine Knowledge 101: Harvest

photo by ryanovineyards via flickr

Seriously, every time I turn around, it’s three weeks later, and I’ve meant to post ten blog posts. I’ve had them planned out for ages, but every time I think about sitting down and writing, I get another invitation to a wine industry party or a blind rosé tasting, or my car breaks down and I have to fly to Seattle to buy a new one. And now, we’re smack in the middle of harvest and crush, and everything has gotten even busier!

Speaking of, what are harvest and crush? Harvest is the process every September-October of picking the grapes, either by machine or by hand, and bringing them back to the winery, where they are sorted, de-stemmed (sometimes, unless the winemaker wants to add stem-tannin to the wine…but that’s another post altogether), and crushed to release the juice inside the grapes.

This is where all wine starts, from the whites and rosés that will be released the following spring to the big reds that will be released several years later, after they’ve spent a year or two in oak barrels and then a little time aging in bottle. All these wines will be labelled with the year the grapes were picked, regardless of when they are eventually released.

When does harvest happen? Harvest happens in the fall, depending on how the growing season has gone. This year, we had an early summer, and a lot of long, hot days, which led to an early harvest. I heard estimates of 2-3 weeks early, which meant some wineries were bringing in grapes during the first week of September. Last year, we had a later harvest, with most wineries bringing in grapes in late September.

Not all grapes ripen at the same time; usually whites are brought in first, then early-ripening reds, such as Merlot. Cab is usually a later-ripening, as is Petit Verdot. Usually, the winemaker or vineyard manager will make the call as to when the grapes are harvested and brought in, based on sugar and acid levels, as well as physiological ripeness or tannin level.

What does harvest mean for winery workers? For those working on the production/winemaking side, it means long days (early morning until late in the evening), with few days off until after Thanksgiving. The grapes are ready when the grapes are ready, and they don’t always take into account that the production crew has been working nonstop for weeks. My friends on the production side tell me that it’s sometimes difficult to explain to significant others exactly how much they’ll be working during harvest. During harvest, I assume that I won’t see my production friends for a couple of months. Even though it’s hard work, there’s an air of excitement in the winery when harvest is going on. This is the beginning of a brand new vintage! 

Have any readers ever worked harvest at a winery? What were your experiences? For non-wine industry folks, what questions did I leave unanswered?


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