Grape Harvest: The SuperBowl of Wine Making

Grape Harvest: The SuperBowl of Wine Making

Every professional has their moment. Athletes have the Olympics. Business people have a big promotion interview. Artists have a gallery opening. Hokie Nation has Bowl Games. For winemakers, their big moment is harvest time. 


This is the defining moment in a winemaker’s season. All the work of trimming, planting, growing, and tending comes down to this one moment: how much and how good is the harvest. 


For wineries in the northern hemisphere, harvest time is during August, September, and October, usually with a bit of time to extend if necessary, depending on ripeness and growth. The grapes will start to change color and growing plumper, usually in mid-to-late summer. It’s then a careful game of watching and waiting for the bunches to develop the right sugar content, tannins, and acidity. 

During that three month window, grapes are harvested according to their type and the kind of wine that will be made. Sparkling wines, for example, require grapes with low sugar content, so those are harvested first. Red wine grapes take longer to reach maturation, so they tend to be harvested during the middle to end of the season. Sweet wines - such as dessert wines - are made from grapes with high sugar content, which means those grapes need extra time to get as much sugar as they can from the vine. 


Winemakers have to be careful when harvesting, and check each bunch to make sure its ripe. Ripeness is determined by a multitude of factors - access to sunlight, for example - which can vary bunch by bunch. Grapes from the same vine may not ripen at the same speed if one bunch is covered with more leaf shade than another. 


Vineyards have three harvesting options: by hand, by machine, or a combination of the two. Each option offers benefits and drawbacks, and the choice depends entirely on the needs of the vineyard and the winemaker’s personal preference. 


Harvest by hand, with the help of shears and knives, allows the winemakers more control over the crop. They can inspect each bunch before picking, and ensure the bunches are handled carefully (which is important, because broken skin in a batch of grapes can lead to bacterial growth, pests, and rot.) Some even argue that it helps the wine taste better. In fact, in Champagne, hand-picking is required by law! There are other reasons for hand-picking, too. Some vineyards are built on hills so steep that using a machine would be too dangerous. Old vineyards that predate machinery planted their rows too close together for a machine to be able to harvest. But hand-picking requires hiring a lot of workers for a very short amount of time, which is difficult to do. Employees also need to be trained in hand-cutting vines and determining ripeness and health of bunches. Labor costs for hand-picking can be enormous. 


Harvesting by machine, therefore, is the common method for larger vineyards. The vine runs through the machine, and the machine vibrates the branches. This causes the bunches to come loose and fall into the conveyor belt in the machine, which takes them down a chute and into a collection bin. It’s rougher on the grapes, and doesn’t allow for the individual checking of each bunch; but for big vineyards, these machines allow for fast, efficient harvesting that can be done at unusual hours (harvesting during the coolest parts of the day - dawn, dusk, and night - helps prevent early fermentation.)

The vineyards that use a combination of the two usually machine-pick their big batches, and hand-pick their more valuable grapes (like those set aside for their flagship wine). For a larger winery that wants to maintain the integrity of their most valuable product, this is a perfect compromise. 

Harvest season is an exciting time for a winery, and therefore cause for celebration! The best way to celebrate a harvest is through grape stomping! Beliveau Farms' 7th Annual Grape Stomping Festival on September 22, 2019 from 12:00PM - 6:00PM, will include a unique variety of vendors from local businesses, live music, food specials, and of course good old fashioned grape stomping! It's fun for the whole family! 


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