Countdown to Harvest
'Every year, by the time
Labor day comes and goes, we start to anxiously count down
the days to harvest. Depending on what the weather is
like, it may be with excitement or nervousness, because
“September makes the vintage” as the French like to say.
beginning of September will see the start of the grape harvest in Oregon, in
the Southern Willamette Valley and Umpqua and Rogue Valley wine regions. As the weeks go
by, other regions to the north will follow suit, with harvest going
on through mid- to late-October. In the N Willamette Valley, the harvests will begin
in mid-September and go on into the first weeks of October. The date
of harvest can usually be predicted by counting 100 days from the date of
the flowering of the vine, so winegrowers have a fairly good idea when they
will take place. Except in very unusual years (like 1898, 1928, 1941,
1981, 1994, 2009 & 2015-2017 with their
famous heat waves), the harvest takes place at roughly the same time each
year, give or take a week or two.
harvest (les vendanges in French, la vendemmia in Italian) is
an exciting time, when the vineyards are bustling with activity and trucks
brimming with ripe grapes are brought into the wineries for the beginning of
vinification. But prior to harvest, there is much to do to prepare for
this all-important event, the culmination of an entire year of work and
final months prior to harvest, winegrowers take a number of steps to ensure
that the grapes reach optimum ripeness and concentration. July is the
time of the "green harvest," when grape bunches that have less of a chance
of ripening well are cut off and left on the ground to allow those that
remain to benefit more from the photosynthesis of the plant. The idea
is to have fewer bunches, but more concentration of sugar and flavor in
those bunches: quality versus quantity.
August, excess foliage is often trimmed off, once again to concentrate the
plant's efforts on the grapes. Leaves are thinned to better expose the
grapes to the sun (usually on the east side to better benefit from the
morning sun), and to allow good ventilation to avoid the development of
fungus and rot.
Several weeks before the harvest, the winery must be thoroughly cleaned, to
ensure an excellent level of hygiene during the vinification process and
eliminate (as much as possible) the presence of bacteria or "bad" yeasts
(like brettanomyces) that could produce bad tastes or spoilage of the
wine. In places like the Willamette Valley (like Bordeaux, Burgundy or
Tuscany), large oak vats are used
for fermentation and must be thoroughly cleaned, sulfured (to kill
bacteria). They are then filled with water for a time to allow the dry
oak to swell (otherwise there could be leaks, since the boards are held
together only by the metal rings encircling them). All equipment must
be tested to make sure it's in good working order: temperature control,
pumps, crusher/destemmer machines, presses, etc.
days leading up to the harvest, grape samples are taken at numerous places
in the vineyard and then analyzed to measure sugar and acidity levels and
maturity pf polyphenols (skins and pips). In France, members of the local
winemakers' unions meet to decide when to post the "ban des vendanges"
the date after which the harvest may commence in their appellation.
Publicly posting this date ensures minimum levels of quality, preventing
hasty winegrowers from harvesting grapes that are not yet truly ripe. In
Oregon, each winemaker determines for themselves harvest time.
There is often
parties or festivals held (check out our events page) to celebrate the
harvest time - these festivities allow the general public to participate in
the anticipation and excitement of harvest time.
When sugar and acidity levels are ideal and skins and pips are ripe, the
harvest can begin. Wine estates call in their grape pickers, who are
"on call" waiting for the telephone to ring to report for work. The entire
staff of the estate swings into action to bring in the grapes at optimum
ripeness, before rain or rot can arrive to ruin the crop. White grapes
are immediately pressed, and red ones go into tanks to start maceration and
fermentation. The new vintage is about to be born.
the video above for a glimpse into harvest
activities and hear from Alex Sokol Blosser about his
thoughts on the vintage.