We often hear in Virginia that October is “Grape Harvest” month. That may be true, but there’s a lot more to it. Harvesting grapes is a little bit technical and a little bit intuitive. One thing to note is that not all grape varieties ripen on the same schedule. It’s not a set rule, but for the most part, the white grapes ripen quicker than the reds and harvest can begin in late August and go until early October. Regardless, here’s what your friendly Virginia Vineyard looks for in their grapes.
Appearance. It’s a bit easier to see the right color in a red grape as they start green and transition to red, but no matter the type, the vineyard is looking for that initial physical characteristic to indicate that grapes are reaching their prime. The stem and seed appearance play an important role too as both should be brownish rather than yellow/green.
Flavor. The seeds play another important role beyond their appearance. Their flavor helps
indicate when grapes are ready. Under-ripe grape seeds are often very bitter. Don’t get me wrong…ripe grape seeds can be bitter too, but far less. The vineyard also wants to taste the meat of the grape to see if the desired flavor profiles are coming out. We often heard people talking about cherries, blackberries, currant, etc. If hints of these flavors are not presenting, the grape may not be ready. I say, “may,” because each year is different and the weather conditions can play an important part in what kind of profile you will get, but the experienced winemaker will know what to expect and what to look out for.
Sweetness. The sugar level of grapes sort of falls in the Appearance and Flavor categories. As the sugar level rises, the grapes get bigger/plumper. Additionally, they become sweeter to the tongue, which I learned makes it even more difficult to pick out the different flavor characteristics described above.
So where does this get technical? Winemakers also like to play chemist. They can test for sugar levels and pH. As discussed, when grapes ripen, the sugar level goes up, but the acidity will also go down. Certain winemakers will have a certain target they are trying to hit and could even harvest a little earlier or later to hit them. Lastly, I haven’t even brought up tannins. Young grapes can have aggressive tannins and over ripened grapes may lack the tannins needed to provide the desired profile.
So, as you can see, there’s a little science and a little intuition in the mad world of viticulture. It’s all about finding that balance of sugar, acid, and tannins…and if you have been in Virginia long enough, you will have tasted a lot of the “same” wine but with a completely different profile…or interpretation.