After winter dormancy, spring rebirth and summer growth comes autumn, or harvest in the vineyard. Winemakers treasure this time, which represents hope and a year’s worth of work.
From grape ripening and picking to monitoring inclement weather and vine health, fall keeps vintners active.
“Once your fruit hits the crush pad, there’s a sense of relief that you have made it,” says Kate Bowman, director of marketing for Bowman Cellars in Sebastopol, California.
That means grapes are out of the vineyard and into the cellar, where the next phase of winemaking begins.
Life of the vine and vineyard management
Winemakers’ perspectives on the season are often informed by their location. In warmer regions like Barossa, Australia, grapes might attain desired sugar levels weeks or even a month earlier than their cool-region counterparts.
Barossa wineries like Lambert Bridge may have already transitioned into cellar work when fall arrives.
“The onset of autumn really signifies the heart of vintage for us in the Barossa,” says Vanesa Lambert, winemaker at Lambert Vineyards. “It is one of the best times of the year in the winery; everything is buzzing with energy.”
Lambert harvests primarily at night when temperatures are coolest. She finds there’s “pressure on harvesting times” and “consumer demand for fresher and lower-alcohol wines.”
Anthony Nappa, winemaker for Anthony Nappa Wines and Raphael Vineyards in the North Fork of Long Island, New York, views autumn as a transition from the grape- and plant-growing season to the grape-ripening season.
“It is an important distinction as our vineyard management and sprays change from focusing on maintaining a healthy plant to ripening quality fruit,” he says.
Nappa generally harvests white wines in September and red wines in October, but some red varieties come in as late as November, depending on climatic conditions. Harvesting this late can negatively impact the vines, he says, which need time before winter to focus on root growth and carbohydrate storage.
“It is also important for the canes to properly harden-off after harvest, before it gets too cold,” he says.
In autumn, after grapes are hand-picked or machine-harvested, vines continue to photosynthesize, which boosts carbohydrate reserves in roots and vines before impending dormancy.
Afterward, chlorophyll starts to break down. Leaves on the vines change from green to yellow and even red. The vineyards of the Sagrantino grape in Umbria evoke a fiery blaze in the warmth of autumn light.
Unfortunately, most vineyards trimmed in crimson leaves indicate disease like the viruses of grapevine leafroll and red blotch. Nutrient deficiencies like a lack of potassium or magnesium can also redden leaves in late summer.
Alice Paillard, who comanages Bruno Paillard Champagne with her father, Bruno, says she uses the post-harvest period to observe the behavior of individual vines.
“We take away the sick ones and mark the best ones for potential massal selections,” she says. Massal selection or selection massale is a technique in which vintners use cuttings sourced from the property’s old vines to replant a vineyard.
Climate change has shaped harvests worldwide. Many winemakers now harvest earlier and mitigate intensifying conditions like heat, drought and wildfires.
“Weather is always a major factor in picking decisions,” says Bowman. “In previous years we would celebrate a mild summer, allowing for extended time and a slow maturing process.”
Now, she says, with a seemingly “constant” fire season, longer hang times expose grapes to more smoke taint risk.
California’s heat and drought have also impacted pick times, in some cases, pushing harvest earlier into summer.
“This year, it was looking like an early pick; however, now the temperature has dropped, pushing it back to a normal pick time,” says Bowman. “You just have to hope Mother Nature wants to cooperate.”
Other concerns include excess rain just before picking, which can cause berry splitting, mold and dilution issues.
In September, on Long Island, the changing temperatures and rainfall “can make or break the whole season for each specific varietal and wine style,” says Nappa.
Long-lasting storms and hurricanes around harvest time also threaten harvest for East Coast wine regions.
“If we have a large amount of rain, even in a short period of time, it can dilute the grapes, changing their chemistry,” Nappa says. “But that dilution takes time, so if we run in and harvest the grapes within 24 hours after the rain event, we can beat the dilution effect. If we miss that window, we often must wait up to a week to get the brix and acidity back to pre-dilution levels.”
For all the travails of working in agriculture, the reward of harvest is not merely the gathering of long-awaited fruit for transformation into wine, Paillard says. It’s also a cyclical reminder of the ephemeral nature of life.
“Transition periods tell us something about our humanity, and autumn is the season that teaches us nuance,” she says. “We are always en devenir, or in progress. Nothing is for granted.”