Tag Archives: Physiological Ripeness

Harvest 2011 – Week 6 – How One Decides When to Pick

We just finished Week 6 which saw the bulk of the Pinot Gris that we’re harvesting along with the first part of our Chardonnay.  We even brought in some Zinfandel last week at 26+ Brix! No joke!  Weather was a bit warmer last week with some days in the 90s but it has still remained fairly cool for this area.  Week 6 is essentially the half way point of the season however the bulk of the craziness is still yet to come as weeks 8-10 is when the North Coast fruit really kicks into gear.  Pinot Noir was harvested last week on the Central Coast last week from North Canyon and Chardonnay is beginning this week although acids remain very high.  We’re talking total acidities of 9 or higher (for those who don’t know how high that is, normal acids around harvest are between 6-7 for whites and lower for reds). 


Then it comes down to when the winemaker decides to pick.  This is a tricky time of year. As with many of the decisions that winemakers make this time of year, picking time is critical in setting up wines for success later in their lives.  It is also one of those decisions that should be considered carefully but once decided one should not second guess themselves.  There are several factors that go into a picking decision; vine health, fruit analytics, flavor development, weather, and logistics. 


For vine health, it is important to make sure the vines have the ability to ripen the fruit further should you want to leave it hanging longer.  Vines that are shutting down do not want to continue to put energy into fruit that could be put into sugar storage for over the winter.  Once the fruit has reached physiological ripeness (see my earlier post “What is Ripeness?” for more info on ripeness) the vine wants to put its efforts into going into dormancy for the winter.  Some other reasons why you’d want to pick for vine health is a defoliated vine.  Frost, hail, wind, and drought can all wreck havoc on a canopy.  Frost fries the leaves causing them to dump Potassium into the fruit. This totally screws up the analysis of the fruit and can cause fermentation issues.  Hail, wind, and drought can defoliate the vine, leaving it no ability to ripen the fruit naturally.  The vine will then pull from its own sugar reserves in a last ditch effort to ripen the fruit.  Harvesting at this point is the only way to preserve the health of the vine for later seasons. Vine health also covers fruit that may be breaking down from diseases such as botrytis or powdery attacks.  If the fruit is going you know where in a hand basket, you might want to get it off sooner rather than later.


Assuming your vines are healthy and have no urgent issues the next piece of information you need is the fruit analytics.  Sugar accumulation (or Brix level in the US) and Acids including pH and TA can give you an idea as to where your wine will be headed as far as alcohol and balance.  If your acid is dropping rapidly but your sugar is not rising to match the wine runs the risk of being unbalanced. Likewise, if the sugar is going through the roof quickly then you may want to pick before the alcohol gets out of control.  There are also ways to measure anthocyanin (color) accumulation and tannin development but they usually need some sophisticated equipment to measure accurately. Analytics never tell the entire story but do offer supporting evidence for when to pick.


The most critical piece of information comes from one of the winemaker’s most important analytical tools; their mouth.  The analysis will get you a long way but there is no substitute for getting into the vineyard and tasting the fruit.  If the flavors are where you want them to be and for reds the tannins are ripe then pick!  Everything else can be adjusted but you can’t add flavor, weight and body where there is none. 



   Say the vines are healthy, the analytics and flavors are almost there. You want to pick next Monday, not this week.  However, mother nature has decided to throw you a curve ball and it’s going to rain next Monday (it’s not really going to rain next Monday, I’m just throwing out a hypothetical situation here so don’t get all upset you NorCal folks!) or maybe have a massive heat spike on Friday (a la 2010 in Nor Cal).  What do you do?  Do you pick before or after the weather?  It’s a decision we’ve all had to make at some point.  You weigh the pros and cons and make a decision.  Remember, this is wine, not brain surgery.  The minute we winemakers start taking ourselves that seriously, we will need to step back and relax a bit.


Lastly, a winemaker has to consider the logistics of the whole picking operation.  How are you going to pick it?  Machine? Do you have one in the area that can accommodate you?  Hand?  Is there a crew you can call in?  What are you going to put the fruit in? How are you going to haul it to the winery?  Are there trucks available if the winery is far away? Is the winery even prepared for your fruit?  Do they have room?  I think there is this conception that all the winemaker does is says “Pick it!” and magically harvesters who were waiting for only that block descend upon it and in a few hours it is sitting at the winery being lovingly cared for by attentive staff.  Well the last part is true.  All the grapes should be and are lovingly cared for but it is a very fortunate winemaker that has the entirety of that scenario as their reality. 


There you have it.  Your decisions have been made, the logistics figured out, and the fruit is on its way.  Now the real work begins….




Meandering thoughts on the vineyards this season

As we’re now in mid-June and just finished bloom I must say this vintage has me concerned.  As I walked through our Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot today at Asti Winery, in the Alexander Valley,  I noted that fruit set is variable.  Merlot seemed a bit more erratic than the Sauvignon Blanc though.  More than one winemaker I know has brought up the thought that at this pace we’re going to be crushing into November.  Inevitably when this thought is voiced in a group of vineyard and winery folks there is a good deal of nodding, thoughtful noises made, and glances towards the sky.

The winery at this point has taken on the feeling of the calm before the storm.  We’ve begun to have pre-harvest meetings.  I’ve noticed equipment being serviced that is only used for those crazy 2-3 months out of the year. Hoists for the crush hoppers, presses, and de-stemmers all get their fair share of attention.  Oak orders are being decided as well as other harvest needs. This year as well we have the exciting abet noisy event of construction as well.  New tanks are being constructed and their foundations are being laid concurrently right in the middle of everything with hopes that the majority of the work will be complete before the rains come.

Back to the timing of harvest itself.  There are a few thoughts as to how this year is going to play out and it all hinges on the temperature between now and when the grapes are ripe.  If the weather stays between 90-95 degrees during the day we’ll catch up and have a semi-normal harvest (if such a thing exists).  If it stays too cool or goes above 95 where grapes cease all metabolic reactions then it could be possible that everything could ripen proportionately late or even worse, all at one time.

We can only hope that it warms up enough to catch the growth cycle up because that’s the best case scenario at this point.

What is ripeness?

Everyone knows that when you have 5 winemakers in a room you’ll have around 7 different opinions on any given topic.  Ripeness is one of those topics that bring up more discussion than most because the decision when to pick is one of the most important, if not THE most important, decisions that a winemaker will make during the vintage.  I’m sure you’ve heard several terms thrown around to describe ripeness.  The top terms are…

Sugar Ripeness

This topic gets a ton of attention because the amount of sugar you have in the grapes is directly correlated to the amount of alcohol in a finished wine (assuming the wine is finished to dryness).  Alcohol is a hot topic of conversation right now given that there seems to be a bit of a backlash against the really hot alcohol bombs of over 15%.  All sugar ripeness means is that the grapes have reached the amount of sugar that will produce the minimum alcohol desired depending on what the winemaker wants to achieve.

Phenolic Ripeness (Pronounced Fee-nol-ic)

Phenolics in a grape are the tannins, the color compounds (called anthocyanins) as well as some flavor compounds. This is a bit more complicated than sugar ripeness as it involves both the phenolics in the skins as well as the seeds and pulp.  When the phenolics are ripe then the flavors in the finished wine are more developed, the color is more developed (golden for white grapes and deep red for red varieties), and the tannins are ripe and not green. If you would like to try green tannins go purchase seeded table grapes in the grocery store and munch down on some of the seeds being careful not to break teeth of course.  The sensation of bitterness and dryness that you feel are green tannins. Ripe seeds crack easily and have a nice crunchy character that is very similar to espresso beans.

Flavor Ripeness

This form of ripeness is purely up to the discretion of the winemaker and what their goal is for the flavors of the finished wine.  This is where “hang time” comes into play.  If your goal is a nice crisp white then you may wait until the grapes have a citrus and apple taste however if you want a riper style white then picking may be delayed until more tropical fruit notes have appeared.  Reds are similar that they transition through stages of flavors.  Cabernet Sauvignon will go through green bell pepper, black pepper, raspberry, black cherry and finally blackberry during its development.

Physiological Ripeness

This form of ripeness is, to me, the most important because it is what the grapevine itself considers ripe.  Keep in mind that the goal of a grapevine is not to make fantastic wine, table grapes, or raisins, but to reproduce.  The vine’s entire purpose is to ripen seeds to the point that they will be able to grow and spread the parent vines’ genetic code far and wide aided by birds. Once the vine senses that the seeds are ripe enough and it has produced enough sugar to attract birds to eat the fruit then chemical signals are sent out to physically separate the fruit from the rest of the vine. The vine then turns its energies towards storing carbohydrates to survive the winter and start up again the following spring.  Once the vine thinks it’s done that is the end of natural sugar accumulation (meaning the vine is finished making sugar).  It is the hope of the winemaker and the goal of the vineyard manager to coax the vines to reach this stage at the exact same time that they reach the other three levels of ripeness.

This, of course, rarely happens but the decision to pick can fall very close to the intersection of these different sets of parameters.  It is up to the winemaker to decide what parameters are flexible and which ones are absolutely needed for their wine styles.

Another piece of the puzzle that gets watched like a hawk is acid.  The level of acid starts very high at Verasion and falls steadily over the weeks leading up to harvest.  As the temperature heats up so does the speed of acid degradation (the official name for the acid drop).  Therefore the cooler the region the more acid the grapes can retain over a given period of time, say the time between verasion and harvest. This is the reason regions with warm to hot days but cool nights can typically make better wine than those regions with closer day and night temperatures.

So now given all the different factors and definitions of ripeness, I hope you have a better understanding of why there are so many different ways to think about ripeness in general.  That way the next time you hear a winemaker talk about picking at the peak of ripeness you will know that it means what the peak of ripeness is to them.