By Elspeth Brown
Most grape varietals in the Northern Hemisphere are harvested between late August and early October. This is one of the most crucial steps in making wine. The time at which the grape is picked determines levels of sugar, acid and tannins—all of which can considerably affect the quality of the juice.
Weather will determine when winemakers harvest. They must diligently watch the forecast. In the mountains of Western North Carolina, this can be a trial. One day it’s 90 degrees and raining; the next day it’s a cool 70 degrees with sunshine.
Some grapes are much more sensitive to a precise harvest date. For instance, if Merlot is left on the vine too long, it will lose its vivaciousness. Cabernet Sauvignon is a little bit more resilient and white wine grapes are much more tolerant. If the grapes are not ripe enough, the winemaker will check to see if rain is in the forecast. If so, they will hope for warm, dry weather after the rain to help ripen the grapes.
In addition to choosing the day to pick, winemakers must also decide on the time of day for harvest. They typically want it to be the coolest part of the day—either during the night or early in the morning.
This month, if winemakers haven’t already harvested here in Western North Carolina, they might be a little too late. Jeff Frisbee from Addison Farms Vineyard has already concluded his harvest by the end of September. He and his wife have owned the Leicester vineyard since 2009.
Jeff really does not want to see much rain in August and September. Once you start to see color in the grapes, usually around July or August, you don’t want to see too much precipitation. One-quarter of an inch per week is ideal.
The most difficult part of harvesting the grapes is figuring out when they are at their peak flavor relating to sugar and acid levels. “This is a mix of science and art,” Jeff explains. “The science? We use a refractometer to measure sugar content. We perform a titration to measure the acidity of the juice. And we check pH. The art? Taste, crunch seeds, look at the color in the seeds (we want them to be brown, not green), and really, just tasting for balance. The science will confirm or deny whether the art of our tasting is on track.”
Next season, contact one of Western North Carolina’s local wineries, like Addison Farms, and embark on an unusual adventure by asking if you could assist during the harvest. I’m sure most small, family-owned wineries would appreciate the help. Plan to get up early to beat the heat so the fruit doesn’t get hot. By the time it warms up outside, you will be able to reward yourself for the hard work with a glass of the grapes harvested from years before. Enjoy!
Elspeth Brown is the owner of Maggie B’s Wine & Specialty Store, 10 C South Main Street in Weaverville. For information, visit MaggieBsWine.com or call 828.645.1111.