How the wine harvest takes place and where to enjoy this magical experience in Italy
The wine harvest is the moment when the grapes destined for winemaking are finally harvested. However, this is not a simple production process, but a real ritual that brings with it centuries of history. For millennia, men have gathered at this time of the year to give life to the wine production. Over time the grape harvest techniques have changed, the mechanisms have been refined but the most intimate and human sense has remained, the one that unites the land to men allowing the creation of something extraordinary.
The stages of the winemaking process do not end with the wine harvest, a festive and special moment where the best grapes are chosen to make wine. In reality, the winemaking process is long and complex, made of deep dedication, study, passion and celebration of the vineyards themselves. In fact, many elements should be considered for wine production. The most important one is certainly the vineyard: not all of them are the same and not every vineyard gets the same type of wine. There are many other causes that contribute to the quality of the final product. The climate has got an influence on the annual growth cycle of grapevines. For example, European grapevines do not withstand cold temperatures, American grapevines have a high resistance to cold temperatures. What is clear, however, is that all the details should be taken care of and nothing should be left to chance, even the lowering of a little value can compromise the growing so to cause permanent damages to the grape harvest. Another key point for the wine harvest is sunlight, which is why some areas are literally blessed with good luck. They are able to offer better vegetation and stronger heat. However, this does not depend only on the “nature” but on the place that is chosen by the winemaker, on the exact latitude in which the vineyard is developed.
When is the grape harvest in Italy? The wine harvest is completed from late August to early November, based on the ripening of the grapes. This is ready when the percentage of sugars and acids has reached the optimal level. On average, it is necessary to wait at least 4 years before a grapevine begins to produce fruit; in this long period, the winegrower works on the plant to strengthen it and then prepare it for the magical moment.
The ideal time for the wine harvest: the characteristics of the grapes
The grape harvest takes place when the grapes are ready. This means that there should be a perfect balance between acids and sugars. Thanks to the heat and sunlight, the fruit ripens and, in this way, acids progressively decrease and sugars increase. When the grapes are still unripe, the acids are too high and the sugars are deficient. This is a general principle that allows the winegrower to understand when the grapes are perfectly ripe. However, there are specific techniques that vary for each different grape variety and they allow you to be sure of the perfect moment. For example, for red grapes, the maturity of the tannin is carefully assessed, for aromatic grapes, the grape is evaluated at a sensorial level. Each grape variety must have a specific colour to be ready, the Sauvignon becomes greenish-yellow, the Schioppettino instead tends to be almost blue, the Ribolla Gialla has a splendid golden colour. This complexity of elements is only detectable by an experienced winegrower.
To understand if the perfect time has come for the wine harvest, grapes are collected and examined. When the percentage of sugar stabilises, it means that the accumulation is finished. At this point, it is possible to move on to the grape harvest.
For a perfect wine harvest, some precautions must be followed:
- Grapes should not be harvested when they are wet; water could in fact compromise the final flavour of the wine
- Grapes are never harvested in the hottest hours, otherwise they risk fermenting
- The grapes are placed in containers that avoid the grapes from being crushed
- The grapes must not show imperfections, mould or be damaged; therefore, the grapes used in winemaking are carefully selected
As anticipated, the best time for the wine harvest is September/October, but much depends on where the grape harvest takes place.
However there are some exceptions, one of them is the late harvest. To obtain certain types of wine, the grapes are left on the plants and they are collected only when they are actually wilted. This technique is used to guarantee the concentration of sugars and it is used for the production of a sweeter and less acidic wine, with an intense flavour. On the other hand, an early harvest allows to greatly enhance the aromatic and fruity notes of the wine and, in recent years, it has had a significant impact on the Italian market. In this way, in fact, it is possible to approach a minimal-intervention winemaking, to work better on the alcohol content and a very appreciated wine is obtained. An excellent Barbera and a great Pinot Noir can be obtained by anticipating the wine harvest in August. In this way, the grape is harvested when the sugar accumulation is linear and the grape is rich in polyphenols and anthocyanins.
The grape maturation cycle depends on many factors: climate, grape variety and location. All these elements can affect the taste of wine, that may be fresher and lighter or heavier and stronger. The more ripe the grapes, the greater the stability of taste and colour. With more sun and more heat it is sometimes advisable to anticipate the grape harvest, compared to the colder areas where it tends to be postponed.
The phases of the wine harvest
GRAPE HARVEST – The first phase is the wine harvest, when the grapes are picked and then processed. A careful selection is essential to trace any moulds and problems of maturation.
How to make the wine harvest? There are essentially two methods of harvesting grapes: the mechanical and manual harvesting. Once the manual harvesting of grapes was mainly used, today there are still those who use a mix of both to maintain quality standards. Manual harvesting takes place with some operators who select the grapes and transfer them to trolleys or containers. This method is used for important wines and sparkling wines, including traditional method sparkling wines. Obviously, the type of wine harvest affects the final wine and it also determines its value. With the manual harvesting, there is a precise evaluation of each grape. With the mechanical harvesting, grape harvesting machines are used to collect the grapes. These shake vertically or horizontally, effectively dropping the grapes. Obviously, this grape harvest is faster, but it is also a less selective technique and therefore it is inferior from the qualitative point of view.
GRAPE PRESSING – The grape pressing is the process where the juice is extracted from the grapes to obtain the must. This is a real celebration. All together the grapes are crushed and a truly wonderful smell spreads. The manual harvesting once saw large tubs and bare feet for the grape crushing; now machines are used to press the grapes and remove the stalks for hygienic reasons. This phase is certainly the most important and interesting for wine lovers. The machines pass the grapes through rollers, here the grapes are gently crushed and then separated from the stalks. Once this step is done, the grapes are pressed. These moments will determine the colour of wine. Attending this process in person allows you to fully understand all the great work behind that simple bottle you choose at the supermarket or at the wine shop.
FERMENTATION – The final phase of the wine harvest is fermentation. This process turns the grape juice into an alcoholic beverage and takes place in different ways depending on whether you are working on a white wine or red wine. To obtain red wines, the must is kept in contact with the skins of the grape, for white wines it is separated from grape skins, for rosé wines the maceration of this solid parts is used briefly. During maceration, the grape skins and the must are brought into contact before separation. This enhances wine colour and scent. Both the mechanical and manual harvesting then provide for the refermentation of the must, which determines the ageing of wine, followed by bottling and final presentation.
Alcoholic fermentation lasts on average one week/ten days and it is carefully monitored. After an initial phase that lasts 24 hours, we proceed to a second fermantation. For some types of wine, a longer fermentation can also be foreseen. At the end, the wine is transferred to begin stabilisation and ageing (which can take place in different types of barrels to adjust wine flavour).
A once-in-a-lifetime experience in contact with nature
Being able to take part in the wine harvest is a unique experience, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. A special moment, which takes you back to the roots and allows you to enjoy the magic of creating something up close. Italy, from North to South, offers some of the best winemaking experiences and traditions in the world. It is possible to spend a weekend in Sicily, taking part in a wine harvest experience in Marsala or participating in the grape harvest in Lazio to make Cesanese del Piglio wine. Incredible is the opportunity to enjoy the grape harvest in Tuscany and relax in the Tuscan hills, in San Miniato, tasting wines and truffles.
Wine harvest has changed today: new technologies, innovative working techniques and new tools manage to optimise the final product. In the past, the grape harvest was done by hand, today there are machines. However tradition and innovation have learned to coexist, so to create an incredible and above all excellent product thanks to a land that is always wonderful and surprising.
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