I was walking through the Pinot Gris last week and caught a glimpse of something that filled me with equal parts excitement and anxiety. Some clusters, rather than the lime green berries that we’d known all season, were turning a darker, coppery gray. This slight color change can mean only one thing – the official start of the 2015 harvest season!
The physiological process of ripening in wine grapes is known as veraison. Up until now, the grapes have been small, hard berries that are difficult to pull from the cluster and are almost inedibly tart. In fact, the juice from under-ripe grapes (known as verjus) can be used in place of vinegar or lemon juice in salad dressings and is used to make the famous Dijon mustard. With the onset of veraison, however, a dramatic change takes place.
At the height of summer, the grapevine changes its focus from growing more leaves and shoots to ripening fruit. The photosynthetic process of the vine begin to convert sunlight into sugar, stored in the grapes themselves. As the sugar rises in the grapes, the acid level begins to drop. The berries begin to change color, from a fresh lime green to a spectrum of colors from gold to black. The skin of the grape softens and begins to take on flavors all its own, eventually contributing its own color (in anthrocyanins), texture (in tannins), and flavor to the finished wine.
In nature, this process allows the grapes (containing grape seeds) to stand out against the vine and become more attractive for animals at the peak of a seed’s viability, thus providing a way for the grape vine to take root in different locations.
For us in the vineyard, this is a pivotal period. Too much rain and the grapes may lose their concentrated flavors, or even split open. Too much heat and the acid may drop too quickly, resulting in a flabby, lifeless wine. Birds, yellow jackets, bears and other creatures love grapes as much as we do and can devastate a vineyard just as it hits peak ripeness.
In addition, for me this is the time of year that things get real. Up until now, this year’s harvest has existed as a hypothetical, but now we’re looking at 10 tons of fruit arriving in the next two months. I look at the cellar and think “where is it all going to fit? Do I need more tanks? What if the Merlot and Cab Franc come in on the same day – do I have enough bins? Has anyone tested the press since last year?” Harvest presents its own series of challenges, but that’s a topic for another post.
A small color change to a few clusters in the vineyard, therefore, serves as a wake-up call for the vineyards. The next two and a half months will be filled with obsessing over the weather and constantly testing the grapes, then early morning harvests, crushing, pressing, and more.
Veraison, then, represents a turning point for both vine and vineyard in ways that are almost mirror images. The vine, after a season of intense growth, slows and begins the quiet, focused process of ripening. At the same time the vineyard, having spent the season quietly corralling and training the vine’s growth, enters a period of intense activity. Stay tuned as we explore the different steps in more detail.