Archive for October, 2018


Anxious Time at Harvest


To say harvest is the most hectic time at wineries is an understatement.  The steps preceding the time when pickers pass through rows of vines to pluck the rich fruit are fraught with drama. The grapes are carefully judged since picking too early or too late changes the complexity of the juice. So how do the vineyard manager and the winemaker (sometimes the same person depending the size of the winery) discern the optimum moment in preparation for sending workers to the vineyards to pick?  Everything is ready. The fermentation tanks have been cleaned. The winery is spotless. Teams of workers are ready to go loading hand or machine picked grapes for delivery to the winery..

The wait is harrowing because all goes well when the skies are blue. Timing for harvest can be accelerated by bird and insect attacks that also damage the fragile grapes. Dark clouds are a harbinger of trouble. Rain dilutes the juice and hail damages the fruit, spoiling the vintage.  Rain is more worrisome in regions that have frequent bouts of inclement weather like Bordeaux. Not long ago I was in Bordeaux during harvest when winemakers across the region checked the weather station and watched clouds darken the skies. Anxiety filled the air as winemakers decided whether to pick or hazard a few more days of ripening. Either way was a gamble.

A number of factors tell winemakers when to make the call to pick. The taste of juice is crucial. Additional indicators include a hand-held device called a refractometer that measures brix, the amount of sugar in the grapes. Brix is key since sugar changes to alcohol during fermentation.Two other crucial signs of the berries’ maturity include skin and leaf color and the change of color of seeds from green to dark brown.





It’s said that an untalented vintner can spoil a harvest of good grapes, but the reverse is also true. No matter how skilled a winemaker, it’s next to impossible to turn bad grapes into good wine. The exception? Late harvest sweet wines, (also called dessert wine) are produced from grapes attacked by a fungus, Botrytis cinerea, or noble rot, the same fungus that infests strawberries and soft fruits. Grapes left hanging on the vines shrivel and become blanketed with ugly mold. (Consumers would call the board of health if the moldy grapes appeared on supermarket shelves.) But along winemaking’s historical path someone bravely tasted the mold-ridden grapes, surprised by the concentration of sugar. In a case of waste not, want not, the berries were pressed and fermented into sweet wines with enticing flavors and alluring bouquets. Golden-hued sweet wines, including Sauternes from France, Tokaji from Hungary, and German Spätlese made from Riesling,are some of the world’s most coveted. Moscato d’Asti or a Moscato from Napa like the ones produced at St. Supéry are excellent well-priced alternatives. I remember when St. Supéry served a mouth-watering French toast topped with a sauce of orange-flavored Moscato one glorious Napa morning on the winery’s grounds.

My first introduction to grapes infested with noble rot  was at a prestigious Bordeaux vineyard during harvest. I winced at what seemed to be a harbinger of viticultural disaster. Surprisngly, the winery’s owner/winemaker beamed at the harvest touched by Botrytis. Chance plays a  huge part in the development of sweet wines . The erratic arrival of the fungus provides the beneficial conditions for the production of sweet white wines. But  weather doesn’t always cooperate so winemakers who specialize in late harvest wines play a waiting game. While neighbors pick their vineyards clean,  other winemakers hold their breaths gambling on nature to align necessary conditions of ample fog, rain, and humidity to cause unpredictable mold to appear in the vineyard. Mold devours water in grapes causing them to shrivel, producing profoundly sweet juice. In years when Botrytis fails to arrive, an entire vintage goes down the drain. Grapes destined for sweet wine are too far past their peak to harvest for dry wine. But when Botrytis strikes, the yucky, spore-covered shriveled grapes are picked slowly over several weeks, fermented, and aged. The time it takes to pick berry by berry is another reason the wine can be so costly. Fermentation in small barrels or vats for two or three years adds to the cost.

Unfortunately, the American general aversion to sweet wines means a limited audience for the delectable product. One reason may be ignorance about what foods besides desserts are a good match for the wines. They match well with many savory foods, like duck a l’orange, foie gras, chicken or pork in fruit sauce, and surprisingly, intense blue cheese. Dry wine is less appropriate for dishes with sweet components..

The complex elixirs are lip-smacking delicious, worth the price and worth seeking out.  Chateau d’Yquem is generally reputed to top the list of Bordeaux Sauternes. Suduiraut, Its next-door neighbor is excellent.

Read about Sauternes producer Xavier Planty of Chateau Guirard, considered by many to be the best in the region in my book “THE WINEMAKER’S HAND: CONVERSATIONS ON TALENT, TECHNIQUE, AND TERROIR” available on Amazon or through Columbia University Press. The book contains interviews with over 40 winemakers from around the world, and each winemaker talks about the special qualities he or she brings to their wines.