The other morning, as the sun was changing the color of the sky, I got up, padded outside, and as I took my first sip of hot tea, I felt it… that first kiss of fall. Yes, I know, it’s still hot. Yes, I know that it’s still officially summer, but trust me, you could feel it in the air.
If you’re in agriculture, specifically grapes, you can feel and smell harvest. There’s a cooling in the morning air, and a sweet smell as those beautiful grapes soak up the sun and water, ripening on the vine and hanging below the leaf line. They’re dazzling in the morning light and a treat to watch as they ready themselves for fall.
Harvest is exciting. For farmers, it’s the culmination of a year’s worth of work, and once those grapes are off the vine, we breathe a sigh of relief, and then begin the work of preparing for the next season. But for vintners, it’s the beginning of an intriguing, beguiling and even daunting ride. Once those grapes are in their hands, figuratively and literally, the artistic endeavor begins… creating an exceptional bottle of wine that will be shared, savored and enjoyed.
Grape harvest for méthode champenoise sparkling wine [also known as French-style champagne] begins significantly earlier than those grapes harvested for still wines. Sparkling wine grapes must be harvested when sugar levels are low [sweetness comes from sucrose in the grapes and is measured in Brix], and acidity is high. This ensures that that crisp acidity is maintained in the finished wine.
Our winemaker began sampling grapes at the end of June. Early in the morning, often before the sun rose, he headed out into the vineyard and collected sample grapes, then tested the sugar levels in order to monitor their progress. Not only did he randomly select grapes for testing, but he tasted them, often stating that although the sugar level may indicate that the grapes were ready, “The taste isn’t there yet.”
A grape can be sweet, but that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily ripe. Ripeness means that the seeds, skin and stems are ripe. The seeds will taste less bitter and the color changes, which results in the grapes deemed to be “ripe” for harvesting. A skilled winemaker is a true artisan and can walk down a row and know whether those grapes are ready. When the taste is there, harvest begins.
Grapes are generally harvested at night here in Lodi. This is because the fruit is cooler, the sugar levels are stable, and winemakers can maintain better control over the primary fermentation process. Daytime temperatures during this time of year can change the sugar composition of the grapes, so the lower nighttime temperatures result in a better wine, lower energy costs and provide for greater efficiency.
To go one further, keeping grapes cooler protects the delicate flavors, skins and pulp. Heat can, in effect, “cook” the fruit and make the resulting wine flabby, destroying the important acidity needed for our bubbles. But when harvested under ideal conditions, the result are grapes that remain clean and fresh. You can taste the difference in the juice even before it’s made into wine.
Once the grapes are harvested, they’ll quickly be transported to the winery, where they’ll be pressed, not crushed, to limit the contact between the skin and juice. A pneumatic press, which has a large, plastic balloon will gradually inflate and gently break the grape skins. Juice will slowly drain into a pan beneath the press, rotating to get every drop of juice. The press turns, inflates again and again, ultimately leaving a pile of dry skins and seeds. The Chardonnay juice, free run, will retain the pure, Chardonnay characteristics, allowing our winemakers to create an exceptional wine.
If you ever get the chance to visit a winery during crush, the smell permeating the air is heavenly. The juice running off those perfect Chardonnay grapes is crisp, rich and dances across your tongue. It’s a delightful experience for your senses. Did I mention that harvest is exciting?!?