The Grapevine – Giving Thanks for a Grape Harvest

Thanksgiving is a time of celebration and reflection, a tradition in history dating back to the early 1600s. Following harvest, the tradition was for America’s first farmers, the Native Americans and the earliest European settlers (Pilgrims), to celebrate and share the bounty with their communities. The Thanksgiving traditions continue today, as families sit down to share food and drink, reminisce, and be thankful.

Just as the first farmers would celebrate harvest, it is also a time of celebration in vineyards around the world — except for in South America or down under where summer is just beginning. Grape farmers in the Northern Hemisphere are patiently waiting and watching their crops with great anticipation. Consumed by weather reports, farmers carefully examine the fruit in each vineyard daily. Measuring Brix – or the sugar content of the grape – is a daily chore for the grape farmer.

Grape farming, just like any type of farming, can be stressful. With the late arrival of spring this year, the grape vines were weeks behind in producing grapes. During this past growing season, all varieties of fruit and produce were behind schedule due to weather conditions.

With grapes, as the clusters grow and mature, the farmer waits for what is known as veraison, or when the grapes begin to soften, turn color and begin to ripen. As the growing season progresses, the grape farmer watches over the grapes, tending and pruning to maximize the concentration of fruit within the grapes. As the growing season nears the end, the farmer walks through the vineyards, carefully scrutinizing the grapes and wielding a small device called a refractometer. This device allows the farmer to know the exact moment his grapes are ready to be picked. The sugar in the grapes has now reached a level needed to make wine. Stand back because this is when the frenzy in the vineyard begins.

Quite literally at that moment, the call goes out to the grape-picking crew that has been on standby just waiting for the farmer’s declaration that the grapes have ripened to perfection. Picking crews are real experts and amazing to watch work. They are able to harvest fruit at a frenetic pace, yet still handle the fruit with a gentle hand. The grape harvest is a race to get the grapes off the vine as the sugar in the fruit has peaked.
Mother Nature plays an important role in the grape harvest. Trying to harvest when the fall rains come is very difficult. If grapes hang on the vine at the end of their ripening cycle and heavy rains begin, the grapes will absorb excessive water, resulting in wines that are thin – a difficult situation for the winemaker. Winemakers live for great vintages of grapes, or ones that need very little attention once the grapes have been crushed and are in the tank fermenting. Good winemakers will tell you that great wines are made in the vineyard. Now that the grapes have been harvested, the crush begins. Crush is a term used in the wine industry for the harvesting and pressing of grapes, a very exciting time at a vineyard and winery. Once complete, the vineyard crew is finished and the grapes are now in the hands of the winemaker and their team.

At this point, it’s time for the process of fermentation, which involves putting the grapes in a tank and using their natural yeast – or an inoculated commercial strain of yeast – to work with the sugar in the grapes to produce alcohol. If the harvest was a great vintage, the winemaker will not need to manipulate the wines, which is the ideal situation. The grapes ferment for different lengths of time depending on the type and style of wine a winemaker is making. It is during this process that the color of a wine, the alcohol level and the amount of tannin in a wine is determined.

Once the fermentation is complete, the wine is ready to be aged in steel tanks or wooden barrels. It is very common today to buy a bottle of wine that is a blend of the same juice – some was aged in a steel tank while some may have been aged in oak barrel. This is where a winemaker’s expertise is important. Tradition, experience and a winemaker that has made many vintages of wine is critical in producing quality wine.

It’s clear that in the grape-growing business, the harvest and the crush are both stressful and exciting times. During the crush, there is an electric atmosphere of celebration and thankfulness that is contagious.
Each year, the wineries share their harvest with us in the form of a bottle of wine. There are a few great wines that are available at Liquid Planet during this season of Thanksgiving. Look for more wines throughout this month at http://www.WineGuyMike.wordpress.com or on Facebook at WineGuyMike.

Two excellent wines this year are from the Russian River Valley in Sonoma, California. Both of these wines are from the Balletto Vineyards & Winery, which was featured this summer on the WineGuyMike radio show.
2009 Balletto Pinot Gris
This Pinot Gris is a complex, pale, straw-colored wine that opens with musky and exotic fresh fig and floral honey tones. The secondary aromas reveal ripe red apple, melon and lemon. The aromas are ever-changing and intoxicating, and on the palate this wine is lush and perfectly viscous with a dose of tartness that balances and holds the wine together.

2010 Russian River Valley
Pinot Noir
This dark, garnet-colored Pinot Noir is floral with aromas of rose petals, spice, ginger, cassis and fruit aromas of raspberry. There is a bit of dusty earth with just a hint of vanilla too. This wine is showy with a seamless viscosity that is balanced with a healthy bit of tartness to keep the wine fresh and lively. It’s full in the palate with fine, coco-powder-like tannins and a long beautiful finish. Here is another wine that will pair nicely with a Thanksgiving meal and guests will certainly enjoy.

Gentil Hugel 2010
This white wine is a beautiful blend of the Noble grapes from the Alsace region in France. It displays a light youthful color in the glass and is ripe with floral, fruit and notes of spice. This wine is rich, yet dry, and will be the perfect complement for your dinner.

You will find these beautiful Thanksgiving wines at Liquid Planet in downtown Missoula.

From my table to yours,
WineGuyMike

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