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WHY IS AUTUMN HARVEST TIME?

Autumn is harvest time – but what does that actually mean? 

Across Europe, September usually marks the start of harvesting season, a time of celebration and festivities when wine makers are able to quite literally see the fruits of their labour.  

2022 has not been the easiest of years, with heatwaves and drought to contend with, managing the vines and grapes has been incredibly challenging. For this reason, in many regions, harvesting started at perhaps the earliest time ever. Some reports claim that in areas of South of France harvesting started as early as July.  

So how does the wine harvest work and what is important to know when picking grapes? 

How does the winemaker know when grapes are ready to be picked?  

The appearance of the grapes might give the game away, they will be full and plump and developed in colour. Red grapes will turn from green to a deep, rich red. White grapes will become yellowish.  

But the real test will be in the taste. The winemaker will check the levels of sugar and acidity in the grape by tasting it and make a judgement call as to when they are just right for harvesting. A big determining factor will be in the pips! The pips are essential in the taste test as they will be chewy when ripe.  

Clusters of grapes will then be sent to the winery to measure the exact sugar levels using a machine called a refractometer. This will determine a ‘brix’ reading, used to measure the exact volume of sugar. This reading in turn is likely to also determine the alcohol level in the grape as it’s the sugar content that gets converted to alcohol during the wine making process.   

The Risks of picking too early or too late 

If the grapes are harvested too late then there is a risk that they will over ripen. This will mean the grapes will have higher levels of sugar which will not only make the wine too sweet but also mean high levels of alcohol.  

Pick the grapes too early and the grapes will have too much acidity that hasn’t been balanced out enough by the sweetness in the wine. The wine will be sharp and tart and the pips will be under ripe giving green vegetal flavours to the wine.  

The other risk involved here is the grapes ripening too early themselves. Hot temperatures mean that the grape can ripen too quickly and not develop the right level of aromas and flavours needed to make a great tasting wine.  

Hand harvesting vs mechanical harvesting?

Some regions or appellations will stipulate that the wines have to be harvested by hand. Champagne famously hand picks all their crop over a period of about three weeks. Although this will take a long time, it will ensure that only the best quality grapes are picked at the peak of their ripeness as well as meaning minimal damage to the grapes.  

The landscape may also be the determining factor as to whether the grapes can be harvested by machine or not. Where there are steep terraced vineyards such as those in the Douro valley, it is not possible to use harvesting machines. Instead, the picking of the grapes is done by hand and boxes of picked grapes are laboriously carried down from steep hills to the winery.  

Mechanical grape harvesting is usually a lot more efficient, large areas can be picked quickly and doesn’t necessarily mean the grapes will be of any lesser quality. In fact, the benefits of harvesting by machine means that you can wait for the grape to reach the perfect ripeness and then pick them off the vine instantly or if there is impending weather that might damage the grape you can move fast to pick the grapes and prevent any loss.  

What makes a good vintage? 

Balancing sunlight, heat, water, nutrients and CO2 in the vineyard is a real skill and will determine the success of the harvest. Weather is a crucial factor that can impact all those factors.  

The ideal vintage will have a mix of sunny and rainy days throughout the growing season. Bud break, the first signs of the vines flowering, occurs at the beginning of Spring. The buds are extremely delicate and can be damaged by spring frosts or hail storms meaning no grapes will grow on the vine. Something that we saw happen in Chablis in 2021, when on average 80% of crop was destroyed due to severe Spring frost. 

Good weather is also vital at the beginning of the growing season when the vine flowers. This will impact the yield (the number of grapes produced per unit of land), size and quality of the grape. Too much rain and the flower can get damaged, too little and the flower won’t grow enough.  

Timing is also key. Picking grapes at the right time so they have the best flavour and complexity will make for a great vintage too.  

What can we expect from the 2022 harvest?  

This year’s harvest will be an interesting one. With heatwaves and drought, it’s been a tough year for winemakers.  

What we are likely to see is older vines that have a more developed root systems and can access water from the deepest ground are likely to come out on top. This is something we have seen in Bordeaux in previous years, whereby the Grand Cru wines with older vines are able to produce excellent wines despite hot, arid temperatures. Younger vines are more likely to suffer with drought as there is not enough water on the surface for them to flourish.  

France have already reported an increase in yield from their 2021 crop which was ruined by frost. Italy however, hasn’t seen any rain since June, which could heavily impact their yield. What’s for certain is the challenging weather is only going to get more frequent with climate change. We can’t wait to taste the 2022 vintage!