Ah, September! Wineries are running at full steam. Winemakers and their crews are wondering when they’ll get some sleep. And growers? They are biting their nails – praying to the gods of good weather. It’s Harvest Time in the Wine Country! This is the time when a lot of the good stuff happens. Water gets turned into wine. So the pressing (wine pun) question is: how do you know when to pick?
Really, picking is one of the biggest decisions a winemaker will make…and it’s a complicated one. As a winemaker, my job is to get the absolutely best grapes possible, but it’s not the only consideration. Upcoming weather can be a huge factor: a hard rain or a week of heat above 100 degrees can destroy otherwise perfect grapes. Then there’s making sure I can get a picking crew and an empty tank – easier in the beginning of the harvest than at the end. Let’s pretend for a moment that the weather is perfect, crews are plentiful and empty fermentation tanks abound….
Judging when to pick starts with a walk in the vineyard. A healthy vineyard will allow for better and more even ripening. I can pick out trouble spots that may need more care. Uneven ripening may throw off the ever important sample. It seems that every winemaker has a different method for sampling a vineyard – but, I think mine’s best. I like to get a repeatable sample. It’s not truly a random representation like they taught in winemaker school. But this way I can use yearly data to correlate readings from year to year and so better manage the vineyard to get what I want from it. I pick four rows in each block and test the same rows every year. Each sample takes 5 berries from 5 vines from each four rows, taking berries from all sides of the cluster.
Once I have my 100 grapes (check my math: 5x5x4), I do a combination of qualitative and quantitative tests on the sample. I test three sets of three berries. I put each set in my mouth and feel the texture and taste of the pulp and the skins. I’m looking for the pulp texture to get really liquidy and separate easily from the skins. The taste goes from: vegetal to herbaceous to unripe to red fruit or green fruit to black fruit or tropical fruit and finally to jam. I’m looking for red or black fruit in a Cabernet, green or tropical fruit in a Chard. Sometimes I like a bit of jammy flavor in a Zin, but only a bit, as those flavors can lead to high alcohol wines which are not my style. The skins should start to fall apart when I chew them and should lose their bitterness while gaining the nice fruit flavors. The seeds should turn brown and get crunchy. I crush the rest of the sample in a nice ziplock bag and test the juice for sugar (Brix as % of sugar solids), pH (acid to alkaline scale) and TA (titratable acidity) if possible.
Ideally, I’m looking for white grapes to fit these parameters:Brix 22.5 – 24.5, pH 3.2 -3.6, TA 0.65 – 0.75. I like Red grapes closer to: Brix 24.5 – 25.5, pH 3.4 – 3.8, TA 0.58 – 0.7.
The big question: Which is more important, the taste or the numbers? A loaded question gets a loaded answer. The taste and texture of the grapes are my first priority. You can’t make great wine from grapes that are bitter and taste like veggies. You also can’t make great wine from grapes that are way beyond the ideal numbers. In the end, I want the best tasting grapes that fall within my parameters. At that point I pray for good weather, a picking crew and space for the wine. Really? Making wine involves a lot of prayer, and even more beer. But that’s another blog altogether…