If you've been to a winery lately, you may have noticed things are quite busy. It is harvest time in North Carolina! There can be a lot of questions around harvest, so our favorites are below:
How do you know a grape is ready to harvest?
Grapes are tested for sugar and acidity. Grapes, unlike bananas and tomatoes, do not continue to ripen once they are picked. So you have to pick them when they are ready. As the grapes ripen the sugars increase, and the acids decrease - so you have to find that perfect moment of intersection where the sugar is high enough, but the acid has not gotten too low. During fermentation the yeast are eating the sugar in the grape and converting it to alcohol. The sugar level of the grape tells you roughly the amount of alcohol that wine will have. Secondly, and some argue more importantly, the acid is key. Acid makes wine balanced and stable. While this seems complicated enough, there is a wrench thrown into all of this in North Carolina, and that is Mother Nature. The weather can help dictate harvest because a lot of rain and storms can ruin the grapes. The levels of sugar and acid may not be perfect, but if you are about to have days of storms and rain, you will likely have to harvest early. Balancing these three variables of sugar, acid, and weather make the decision on when to pick extremely complicated! (Also, did I mention that each grape varietal ripens at different times, so yeaaaa, you have to do this per grape type!)
How do you pick the grapes?
Most places in North Carolina are small and all the picking is done by hand. That's right, someone is cutting off each bunch, specifically for your wine. They do have fancy machines that will mechanically harvest, but most often these are only reserved for extremely large vineyards, or grapes that are going to make a cheaper commercial wine. Mechanically harvesting is actually worse for the quality of the grapes and the wine. Folks will start bright and early with harvest because it is best to keep the grapes cool.
Ok, we have grapes, but how does that become wine?
This is quite the complicated question, so we will just scratch the surface and more detail will follow in later posts. First you can see that white wine and red wine are handled differently, and there are a lot of other options within each!
White Wine: The grapes come in and get loaded into a press. A press is a machine that holds the grapes and it contains a bladder inside that will inflate with air to press the juice out. There is a pan at the bottom of the press that catches all the juice and you pump it into a tank. Once the juice is in the tank you add yeast and allow it to ferment. After fermentation you filter out the junk and get the wine stable. At this point you are ready to bottle!
Red Wine: The grapes come in and go into a destemmer. A destemmer is a machine that takes the grape clusters and pulls off the grapes from the stem (called the rachis). The grapes then go into a tank as skins, seeds, and juice. Once the grapes are in the tank you add yeast and allow it to ferment. After fermentation is complete, you then take the tank of skins, seeds, juice (all called must) and put it into the press. The press squeezes out all the juice and you pump it back into a tank, or into barrels. Red wine is then typically aged for awhile before it can be filtered, stabilized, and bottled.
When will these grapes be wine?
Wine takes time, and it is completely different for each style of wine. White is usually faster than red. You could have a white out in a couple months, and a red could take YEARS to be released. How you age the wine goes into the artistic style of the winemaker.
Harvest is a fun time of the year but also a crazy time for staff. During this month have gratitude as you are drinking your wine, for all the hands that went into making it - starting with those that individually clipped off each bunch of grapes.