Harvest has always played an important role in human civilzation. For pagans, even the modern variety like Celts, the autumnal equinox is embodied by the great feast of Samhaïn, which marks the end of autumn and the beginning of winter.
Harvest is part of the human cycle. It remains the moment where toil, blood, sweat, tears and just a little foresight and organiszation pay off. Life is not linear, as those who lived it can state : the ups can’t last forever and the same goes for the downs. This darkness got to give, we say to ourselves in consolation. The same way that Paul Bowles wrote in The Sheltering Sky :
We tend to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a number of times, a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.
If you are of Mediterannean backround, the time for jarring tomatoes for sauce (making passata) or pesto is to be done in September. With October, it’s all about the sausage and charcuterie in the pantry. It’s about looking ahead, preparing for the cold weather to come, and reaping the rewards afterwards when the unforgiving cold sets in.
Harvest in the vineyard
During harvest in the vineyard, the final putsch before the grapes head to the chai to be made into wine comes into play. Crucial doesn’t begin to describe this moment. This is why there is a need to move in unison, to be as one, as the long hours and frantic pace of harvest sets upon the winemaker. Every winemakers needs a group of people ready when called upon to come and pick when the time is right. Regarding these pickers, the most determined are from a roll of names in a database that winemaker can call up when it is time to move. They either live in the same or neighboring village. They could also be entire teams of free-lancers moving progessively northwards to work in different vineyards.
Usually they begin in the warmer Meditterranean climate and head towards more continental climate as the season progresses. These are the veterans of the wine wars—they know what to do and what is expected from them. After that you have colorful concoction of people come to pick grapes for the experience, the fraternity and being out in nature, or because they a shiftess human being just going with the flow. The winemaker gives out directions (those who know what to do) are like freelance bud snippers : the entire financial enterprise rests upon their laurels. When the day of picking is done, everyone sits down for a communal meal which makes the days labor very much worth it.
The decision to pick or not to pick is the one most fraught with consequences. The weatherman, notorious for his iffy forceasts, is not to be trusted. It comes down to the winemaker’s grasp of the situation, his ear bent to the ground listening to the insectes, gazing at the western wind. Nothing—nothing—beats picking the grapes by hand for optimum quality. This cost is then incorporated into the price of the bottle for good measure. The reason harvesting by hand is an added cost is obvious : its the best way to protect to protect the juice content of the grapes from oxydization caused by damaged skins. The determining factors when deciding to pick are the tannin levels, the sugar levels and the acidity levels. The combination of these factors determines the ageing potential of the wine and its level of finesse. Ideally, a winemaker prays for a relatively dry period before harvest.
At this point in the vine’s cycle, the berries increase in size because the vine is pumping sugar into the fruit and acidity levels being to drop. But the ripening process is not uniform across the vineyard or even the same cluster of grapes. Certain areas where there is more sunlight will ripen first, which is why grape picking can be a three or four day process. Although sun and warmth are important, most wine pickers will privilege early morning picking so that grapes’ juice have less astringency. Here are two examples of white wines where different visions of what they want the wine to be leads to very different maturity levels.
We drink the wine, comforting us for the unknown winter abyss we head into and pray that everything will come out alright.
Two wines that showcase the importance of harvesting
Alexandre Bain, La Levée
Before drinking Alexandre Bain’s La Levée, I thoughtnall sauvignons blanc were pretty mucht the same. After all, it is one of the easiest grapes to pick out in a blind tasting, never veering too far from the fresh mowed grass, grapefruit and cat-pee aromas. I suppose this is the generic international style the grape has come to be associated with. How strickingly different this sauvignon blanc from Pouily Fumé by Alexandre Bain was! I never knew such ripeness was possible for this grape in this area: honey and quince. The color is almost golden and the longer it’s open the more it veers towarsd bronze and copper hues. This is an example of maturiry levels being pushed to incredible levels by a winemaker who knows how to tests the limits. The beautiful balance between ripe rich tropical fruit and a green touch of tomato leaf in there is all due to Bain’s decision to harvest one month after his neighbors. Cheers to being different!
Michael Gindl, Butteo
Gruner Veltliner is the national grape of Austria, for whites anyway. The grape shares certain aromatic traits with sauvignon blanc such as the greeness, as well as its propensity for the acidity levels being a little nervous. Gruner’s green aromas are more on the celery side, with a hint of white pepper. When you retain the freshness of gruner but have more mature aromas, that’s when the grape becomes interesting to me. Situated in an area known more for it’s mass produced wines than anything else, Michael Gindl stands out as an artisan. His Butteo cuvée is the result of his second trip into the vineyard to harvest more mature gruner grapes. The resulting wine adopts more beeswax and honey aromas (similar to Chenin Blanc’s), deeper and more concentrated than the first trip cuvée, Little Butteo. The rich nose is balanced by the acidity on the tongue, which is fresh and textured as opposed to one dimensional and zippy.