By Shelly Waldron
Fall 2020 is officially here! Although some things may look and feel the same as in previous years, such as pumpkin spice flavored items popping up everywhere, our pandemic year brings unusual twists, football games without fans, smoke filled skies from forest fires, and no scones or crusty pups at the Western Washington Fair. While this fall season looks different, we still have plenty to celebrate and wine is always at the top of my list.
For winegrowers, one activity that stays consistent from year to year, is the seasonal event of harvest, often referred to as the crush. This typically occurs between August and September for growers north of the equator and for growers south of the equator it is February to April. The actual timing of harvest depends on many factors, such as the grape variety, region and climate conditions, and style of wine produced. In recent years climate change, primarily due to global warming, has shifted the harvest season earlier in many countries.
One of the most important time periods prior to the actual harvest, is called the veraison (“verr-ray-zohn”) period, which is a French word describing the transition from berry growth to berry ripening, or simply, when the grapes turn red and sweet. This process also occurs in white grapes, which turn more translucent in color. The next step requires a determination of the ripeness of the grape, measuring the sugar levels by using the brix scale. The sugar level determines the amount of alcohol in the wine. High sugar equals higher alcohol content. Once the grape has achieved the proper sugar level and acid content, the berries darken to create a deeper fruit flavor in the wine and the vines and stems turn from green to brown creating tannins. This is the point when the grapes are ready for harvest. Make no mistake about it, real science is required in each step of wine making. If the grapes are picked early, the tannins may be bitter and underdeveloped and if picked to late, along with the rising risk of fall rain or hail, the sugar levels may get too high which results in a flabby unbalanced wine. Finally, the style of the wine intended by the producer influences the time of harvest. In sparkling wines, high acidity is desirable, so the harvest is early. In dessert wines, by contrast, it is the sugar that counts and so a late harvest for longer ripening and more sugar.
When it is determined that the time is right for harvesting, most wineries prefer using human workers to hand-pick the grapes. Although it is more taxing and involves higher labor costs than machine harvesting, there are a lot of advantages for high-quality wine production. Trained workers can identify properly ripened grape bunches and discard those that are underripe or show signs of rot or other defects. Also, hand-harvesting is a must in vineyards that have steep terrains where it is impossible to use mechanical harvesters in the vineyard.
Although relatively low in cost and able to run 24 hours a day, mechanical harvesting has disadvantages. Machines have no way of determining ripe or underripe grapes and can damage the grape skins in the process. Broken skins add to oxidation and a loss of aromatic qualities in the wine. This type of harvesting is seen mostly in mass produced wines with flat, level terrain.
Once the grapes have been picked and brought into the winery, the sorting of premium quality fruit begins by removing any leaves, and eliminating any damaged, underripe or diseased grapes. This process is called triage, also a French word (see a pattern here?). Top wine estates will use optical laser sorters to do this job, but many wineries still will use human sorters. Since this year’s harvest will require extra precautions, employees will be wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) and plexiglass partitions have been installed between employees on the production lines to keep everyone safe. Sanitation in wineries have always been a top priority but even more this year with Covid 19.
Once the best of the best grapes has been chosen, it is time for the crush to begin so that the yeast can quickly get to work fermenting. Automated crushers are used to break the skins open to release all the juice and pulp without crushing the stems and seeds, which is what contain tannins. The sooner the stems and seeds are removed, the less tannins remain in the wine. The longer they stay in contact with the fruit, the more tannins in the wine. These are the major choices faced by winemakers depending upon the type and style of wine they intend to create.
Just in case you are wondering, do wineries still stomp the wine using “people feet”? No, it is unlikely that the wine you buy will have had anyone’s feet in it. Personally, it does sound fun and I am pretty sure I would be the first one to jump into the vat if asked.
Depending on the size and diversity of the vineyards, harvest can require anywhere from a week to over a month of hard labor for a winery’s temporary picking crew. When it’s all over, many wineries host a grand harvest meal and party for the crew, highlighted by wine, music and the region’s traditional dishes.
The year 2020 has brought interesting challenges to winemakers with the Covid 19 pandemic. Early in the year, winery tasting rooms around the world were ordered to shutter, resulting in a major loss of revenue in the wine industry. There is an old adage that says people drink when they’re happy and when they’re sad, when the market is up and when it’s down, and when things are looking up and when it looks grim. With all that aside, it doesn’t account for the loss of wine sales in restaurants, bars, and wine shops which had to close and are now only able to open in some areas with limited occupancy.
In order to help small businesses in my community, I have begun buying my wine directly from my local wine shops, not at grocery stores, online or big box chain stores. A couple of great choices that are located in Tacoma are Amitie Wine Company and Wildside Wine. Both wine shops have many unique wines to choose from and you also get the owner’s expert advice on wines, and suggestions for food pairing. I think of these shops as being my personal sommelier to assist me in choosing wines. They can also track your past purchases so you can repeat orders of your favorite wines in the future. Both offer monthly wine club subscriptions (Amitie has quarterly ones too!) and they offer exclusive wine events online and when available, in person so be sure to check out their websites. This is just what we all need to keep us educated and enjoying wine through the rest of crazy 2020 and far beyond. This year’s crush will be the future year’s gold!