It is that time of the year: autumn. When the heat of summer slowly subsides and the fruits of our labor are heavy and ripe with maturity and succulent flavors awaiting the harvest. This is the last push before we reap the rewards of our hard work. When we can wipe the sweat off our brows and rest our weary bones in the comfort of our warm abodes to recharge during the long nights and short days of winter until the next year’s spring thaw. And of course, part of those rewards is the pleasure of what’s in the wine glass. The cultivation of the wine grape vines is arguably the most intricate and nuanced farming of all consumable produce. The human intervention (yes! I’m not afraid to use the word) is crucial to the quality of the final product: wine a.k.a. the fermented juice of grapes. “Poetry in a bottle”, as some call it, takes time, patience, hard work and knowledge to make. Yet, with the many variables of natural conditions, and with all the aspects of human intervention in place, the outcome is never guaranteed. Wine grapes are extremely macro-climate sensitive. The weather, the soil’s chemical composition and its type and geographic exposure have an acute effect on the quality of the fruit and subsequently the quality of the wine. In fact, it takes at least three years for a newly planted vine to produce healthy grapes. Wine is made in two distinct stages: the farming of the vines and their fruit in the vineyard and the wine-making process in the winery. Each of these stages has a specific sequence of steps dictated by nature. In this article, we will focus on the first stage. Seasonality is an important factor in farming. Earth’s two hemispheres function on opposite seasonal patterns and we will follow the northern hemisphere’s pattern. We also must keep in mind that depending on their latitude and micro-climate, different wine growing regions offer different temperatures, consequently offsetting the chronology of farming and wine-making. In hot regions like Napa Valley in California or Barossa Valley in Australia, the flowering of the vines will start much earlier than in cooler regions such as Burgundy France or Mosel Germany. Did you know, the best wine growing regions are roughly located between 30- and 50-degrees latitude in both hemispheres? There, the temperatures and the sun’s exposure are the most suitable for Vitis vinifera vine, the species which is best fit for wine-making.
Pruning. It all starts on a cold, foggy late winter morning where the vines—rigid with frost—stand in rows in the middle of barren vineyards. Leafless and seemingly lifeless the vines present themselves with a stark beauty. This is when the first tending of them takes place. While still in their dormancy, the vines are tended to by highly valued pruners, who are specialized vineyard workers. Pruning and trimming will eventually establish the right balance between the number of shoots and the number of buds on a vine. Too many shoots and not enough buds will produce too much leafage, shading the berries from the sun. Too many buds will lead to an excessive abundance of grapes, stopping them from ripening properly. Throughout the life of a vine, there are a plethora of diseases and natural menaces that can impede the plant’s productivity or destroy its growth and fruit. From microscopic mites and fungi to visible creatures like bugs and birds, the vine stands exposed and vulnerable to nature’s elements and her creatures, and it is the vineyards owner’s job to provide protection. It can be done through the use of chemicals, a more predictably effective method, but one that heavily compromises the quality of the fruit and consequently, the wine. Or, you can choose a natural approach by implementing nature-friendly practices of farming: sustainable, organic, or bio-dynamic. These create a healthy ecosystem which results in strong vines which can fight off their enemies on their own and produce “clean” fruit and better wine. It is like homeopathy for vines. The choice is yours. The bud break. The first buds appear when vines awake from dormancy. The bud break usually happens in March or early April depending on the geographic location of the vineyards. The moment the buds come to life, the struggle to protect them from cold temperatures begins. If the temperature dips below the freezing point, it can cause serious damage to the delicate, susceptible shoots. There are a few ways of preventing that from happening; using giant fans to circulate the air throughout the vineyard is one of them. Another one, seemingly counterintuitive, is to use sprinklers to coat the vines with water. The freezing process actually produces a bit of heat, protecting the shoots. About a month after bud break, the flowering stage starts covering vines in a white, snow-like blanket of petals. The fruit set follows flowering almost immediately. Most grapevines self-pollinate, and fertilized flower begins to develop a seed and grape berry to protect the seed. Not all the flowers will pollinate and turn into fruit. Fruit set is a good indicator of the upcoming crop yield giving a vineyard owner an idea of how many grapes can be expected during the harvest. The percentage of fertilized flowers averages around 30%, but it can get as high as 60%. Climate and the health of the vine are the main factors determining that figure. Did you know? Grapes for sparkling wines are harvested notably earlier than others because wine makers are looking for a higher acidity and significantly less ripeness. They are harvested with extra care as to not to disturb the flavors and minimize any harsh compounds that may be imparted from the skin of the grape.
Veraison. Veraison is the on-site of the fruit ripening. This is one of the most scenically beautiful times in the vineyards. The green vegetal color of undeveloped berries changes to yellow, gold, red, crimson and a multitude of such variations of shades. This is also the last time for green harvesting, when the vineyard workers cut and dispose of excess bunches and eliminate the weak and unhealthy ones to direct all the energy of the vine to the most promising crop. The sugar levels in grapes rise exponentially and are monitored constantly using a refractometer. Not enough sugar will result in wines that are too acidic, and tart. Conversely, too much sugar will turn them into flabby fruit bombs. Sugar to acid ratio is one of the leading indicators of a style of wine and its balance. When that ratio is reached within the fruit and to the specifications of a wine-maker, it is time to harvest. Did you know? The big three decisions of a wine-maker when it comes to harvesting grapes are sugar, acid, and tannins. Sugar and acid are measured with a refractometer – tannins, however, are sampled by tasting the grape! Undoubtedly, the harvest is the most labor and time-intensive time of the entire growing season. It is nerve-wracking. Many things can go wrong. Once the decision to pick is made, the grapes have to be picked as quickly as possible and transported to the winery in the most pristine state for further processing. The moment the grapes are plucked from the vine, they stop ripening, but they are immediately exposed to other damaging elements. Therefore the picking starts in the wee hours of the day; usually when it is still dark out, and the temperatures are at their lowest. The cold keeps the grapes’ sugar levels stable. It retains the concentration of flavor better and prevents oxidation and premature fermentation. In wine regions with a hot climate, picking early also ensures more bearable working conditions for the pickers. Most wineries produce wines from a variety of grapes to maximize their facilities: white, red and different varietals within the same color. Different grape varieties require different levels of ripeness, thus are picked at various times during the harvest. White grapes with higher acidity like Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, and Albariño go first. Fuller body wines like Viognier, Chardonnay, and Marsanne are next. Then red grapes follow. Thinner skin grape varieties, Pinot Noir, Gamey and Nebbiolo, ripen earlier. Medium body grapes are next: Merlot, Grenache, and Tempranillo. The big boys come last: Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Mourvedre, and Sagrantino; their harvest can be extended till late October. Not to mention late harvest dessert wines whose grapes are picked as late as the latter part of November. The wineries which offer a full spectrum of grape varieties and wine styles will literally harvest for months. Did you know? Zinfandel is one of the oldest grape-producing vines? After about 50 years Zinfandel vine is considered mature, but it may yet not be half-way through its life. 120-year-old vines are a common occurrence in Zinfandel-thriving regions like Dry Creek Valley in Northern California or the Paso Robles area in California’s Central Coast. The older the vine, the smaller the yield – but with age, the concentration and the complexity of the flavor in grapes increases in ways that it cannot duplicate by any other method. And with that, the harvest is over. All the grapes are at the winery, and the art the wine-making begins. But that’s the topic for next month. Wine’s image and its place in our society have changed dramatically. It hasn’t been until relatively recently in many parts of the globe that wine has become part of our daily indulgence. In many cultures, it has been consumed unceremoniously, almost matter-of-factly; treated as a liquid to wash our foods down with, equally enjoyed by the rich and the poor. For better or worse in recent history, we turned wine into an art form, a commodity, a consumable product of reverence sold at extravagant auctions fetching unreasonable prices showcasing prestige and wealth. To the point – wine seems to have become a fad. People write books and make movies about wine. Wine makers and sommeliers are celebrities. Recently, a bottle of a red Burgundy (Pinot Noir) from the revered DRC Romanne-Conti winery from 1945 vintage was sold at the Sotheby’s auction in New York for over half a million dollars. Nuts! Yet the basics of wine-making, from its inception in the vineyards to the bottling in the winery, haven’t changed for centuries. No matter what the sticker price is, the effort and the process are nearly identical; it takes care, commitment and a lot of hard work. So while drinking your next wine, whether it is an $18 bottle of an unknown wine from an obscure region made by an equally unknown wine-maker or an outrageously priced, collector wine from “the year of the century,” try not to pontificate about its pedigree or pass judgment on the lack thereof. Try as well not to dwell on the technicalities, vintage variation, the label, or the price. Instead, taste and enjoy it through the prism of all the people who contributed to its making, their devoted, hard labor and the magic of nature.