It’s been months it has grown down on its feet, among leaves, fickle weather and diseases, getting ready. All the country has been set at a pace of a fatherly care. The purple newborns are warmly welcomed by coordinated dances within a giant sensorial theater. It’s the French annual grape harvest and Winalist tells you all about this crucial step in the process of wine-making.
What does grape harvest mean ?
Let’s start by getting the fundamentals right : grape harvest, or wine grape harvest is the action of collecting the grapes in the vineyards that will become wine. Grape harvest (“vendange” in French) also refers to the final product gathered, the harvest quantity. Lastly, grape harvest is the period during which the fruits are picked.
Harvest is the crux of wine industry. Harvesting grapes means picking, transporting, sometimes sorting and vatting the fruits. Thus every year, winegrowers have to hire 300,000 seasonal workers which is a real growth driver for the winegrowing regions first, then for the whole country when the final product comes to market. Forecasting the harvest quantities allows to set up bottles’ prices of the previous year. For example in the Bordeaux region, as the harvest quantity was historically low this year, the price of 2016 bottles that are entering the market now, will increase to compensate the future loss of earnings from the 2017 vintage.
Wine grape harvest rituals are deeply settled in popular customs. Old tradition already considered vine as a sacred plant, its harvest as a symbol of wealth and rebirth. Nowadays, it’s a time of celebration across France. From July to October towns and villages organize cultural events and festivals around grape harvest and of course, featuring a traditional grape pressing moment.
When do we harvest?
Time has come to harvest. The time when harvest starts varies according to the different winegrowing regions. On average, it’s between July and October for the Northern hemisphere and between September and October in France.
After the town administration officially launches the grape-picking period, it’s up to the winegrower to decide when his or her grapes are mature enough to start harvesting. Grapes are as ripened as wanted when inside, the quantity of sugars balances the quantity of acids and when there are enough phenol (that gives wine its color and tannin quality) to obtain the taste the winemaker is looking for. How does the winemaker decide when the grapes are mature enough?
Grape harvest is the time when there’s the best compromise between grapes’ maturity and sanitary conditions, weather and the vineyard’s logistic. In practice, 3 key actions help the winemaker to know what’s happening within its grapes :
First, a regular check of its vine plots. He or she uses a refractometer. This little device gives the refraction index of any grape sample. This allows the winemaker to know what is the sugar concentration of the sampled grape juice and to guess an estimate of the future bottles’ degree of alcohol. In different times and different parts of its vineyard, the winemaker picks, presses a grape in the refractometer and reads the approximate number.
Then, a laboratory analysis help to complete the on-site observations, more precisely, as summer is ending.
Finally, the tasting. If you hang around through the vines and decide to taste a grape, you’ll find it way more bitter than the ones you usually eat at home. That’s his or her experience that enables the winemaker to taste such grapes and appreciate their maturity. However, you can still have wine grapes if you want to play a funny face competition!
In our article about Vintage, we explained that a kind weather helps fruits to ripen faster, bringing forward the date to start harvesting. Bad weather hence postpones the grape harvest but just if the vineyard’s logistic allows to do so. In addition, climate change has an impact on the average starting date of grape harvest. Since 1945 on average, this date has begun one month earlier as the following graph shows.
Everyone has its preferred way to harvest
Once every region and vineyard has decided on its harvest starting date, we can notice the different times according to each winegrowing areas. Because of different weather conditions and above all, because of different type of wine expected, we usually have this calendar (to which we need to remove 15 days for the 2017 earlier schedule):
End of August : Provence, Languedoc-Roussillon, Corse ;
Beginning of September : Rhône region, Beaujolais ;
Half September : Val de Loire, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhône region, Jura, Savoie, Southwest region ;
End of September : Champagne, Alsace ;
Beginning of Octobre : Cognac and Charentes
Not only the date, but the way to collect the grapes plays a role on the final product’s quality. There are two methods : mechanical harvesting and hand picking.
– Mechanical harvesting : first introduced in the 1960’s, this method is faster and less costly. However as it takes all the grapes no matter their sanitary conditions, it can just be used for average quality wines.
– Hand picking is an option when either the terrain of a vineyard is too steep or the vines are too close, or when the wine fine quality requires the discernment of workers to pick only healthy bunches. Sparkling wines like Champagne are a good example of this second necessity and this high cost of production that this method generates can also explain part of the bottle price, despite its great taste.
At Winalist, we heard through the grapevine a perfect little trip in September would obviously take place in small towns, or villages that celebrate the annual grape harvest. Hanging around in the vineyards to see how men break their back to make the best wine out of the grapes will show you the authentic spirit of the grape harvest season: diligent work and conviviality!
Also published on Medium.