Wine grapes like all crops also need to be picked. “When” and “How” are two of the most important questions that winemakers ask themselves every vintage. We seek to illuminate the important topics surrounding harvests in our third installment of Millesima Tips.
Mother Nature Determines All
The most crucial point during the vine cycle is determining when to stop growth, or when to pick the grapes. Harvest tends to reward wine growers that are patient. The longer the grape is on the vine, the higher the sugar content of the grape will be.
When harvest takes place is determined by the mixt of the climate, soil type, grape variety, and the style of wine that growers are looking to produce. Grape vines are planted in two “sections” (between the 30th and 50th parallels, north and south) of the planet. In the Southern Hemisphere harvest is usually from February to April. September to November is the typical time period for harvest in the Northern Hemisphere.
When to Pick White & Red Grapes
The white grape varieties that are harvested first are usually: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris. Later in the season, Chenin Blanc and Viognier are picked. Sweet wines, or dessert wines are picked later in the season as well. These wines are usually left on the vines 1-2 months after they have reached peak maturation. The sugar content becomes more concentrated and the grape dehydrates. Any grape can be harvested late, but white grapes are the most common.
Early-ripening red grape varieties are Pinot Noir, Merlot and Syrah. Pinot Noir’s thin skin makes it a sensitive grape that requires a lot of care. Cabernet Sauvignon is almost always the last grape to be picked. It ripens slower than the other grapes and requires a lot of sunlight to reach optimal maturity.
Humans vs. Machines
Grapes can be harvested by hand or by machine. The questions is, which method is the best? In short, there is no right or wrong way to harvest grapes. Much like the seasons and the best time to pick, the method depends on the environment. We know that harvesting by hand gives the wine a more personal quality. You know that someone, and not something, helped contribute to the production of your wine. Hand picking grapes allows for the use of knives or shears.
The benefits of this technique are that grapes are treated carefully and only the best grapes are selected. For certain wineries, only their best plots are picked by hand. In the case of sweet wines, late-harvest and noble rot, the grapes need to be treated with care so that they are not crushed or damaged. However, hand-picking is expensive and a time consuming process.
Machines are great for covering large areas in a time-efficient manner. Selection is more complicated for machines, as there is less precision. Shaking can damage vines, the materials collected are varied (sometimes including stems and leaves) and the grapes are treated less delicately (causing some grapes to sit in a pool of juice and dirt before transportation). When considering the rolling hills of Prosecco, we can understand why certain vineyards don’t use machines.
There is no clear winner of this debate, both techniques can be used to create elegant, high-quality wines. All depends on the weather of the vintage, the winemakers’ decision of when to harvest, and how the grapes are treated on their way to being transformed into wine.