Look, Ma, no grapes!
Yes, friends, it's harvest time. All the speculation and hard work of the growing season has come to a head and the grape samplers are swarming over the countryside. So far, the sparkling wine harvest is coming to a close while the "still" wine season has just begun. In our case, we've harvested Sauvignon Blanc (pictured) for ourselves, Honig and Lail wineries and Chardonnay for Far Niente. The red varieties (or "black" grapes, in the farmer argot) are starting to show up in various wineries in the area.
I often get asked questions about harvest decisions and there are as many special criteria as there are winemakers. The percent sugar, or "Brix," is a popular indicator but almost irrelevant these days since winemakers are looking at many other parameters. Taste is a biggie (go figure!). The level of phenols is a popular talking point. There is a lot of discussion about "mature tannins" meaning a lack of herbaceous characteristics.
I keep finding, myself, that the pH of the juice sample pretty much tells the whole story. It's a little complicated, and if you ever visit, I would be happy to elaborate. Suffice it to say, when the pH starts to rise at a steeper rate, the grapes are now ripe and then it's really the winemaker's choice as to how ripe (lower acid) they want to go. Everyone seems to want "ripe tannins" and the consequence is higher sugar which means higher alcohol. I contend that much of this is about lower acidity earlier sales and consumption of the wine. The consequence, besides elevated alcohol, is a lack of classic structure and the ability for the lower acid wines to develop over time. I've been trying to strike a balance between this modern approach and the classic approach for our wines and often pick a wee bit earlier than most of our grape customers and the region, in general.
So now, we watch the weather like hawks, roam the vineyards like busy bees, and shove all the equipment around to get it in place for this most exciting time. You only get one chance to get it right. The die are cast as soon as the grapes come off the vine and the retrospect may last a hundred years or more.