Washington wine makers are up to their ears in grapes right now. With all those hot summer days we had, some vineyard sites and grape varieties are running ahead of the usual schedule. Many Washington vineyards began harvesting at the end of August in what is expected to be yet another record-breaking wine grape harvest,
Crop estimates put this year’s wine grapes at more than 230,000 tons, according to the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers. Last year, Washington farmers picked 210,000 tons of wine grapes. In 2012, the harvest was 188,000 tons.
What’s turning into the second bumper crop in a row has led to flurries of activities in Washington’s wineries. It’s a logistical scramble for many of the state’s wineries; handling all of this bounty takes preparation.
The reason for this is there are only so many wine holding vessels that can fit into the state’s smaller wineries. In those wineries are the barrels, tanks, fermenters and all the other accoutrements for the winemaker. In order to make room for the harvest, everything is shifted into the next phase. Barrels are emptied into bottles, tanks into barrels and fermenters into tanks.
Once that is accomplished, wineries have room for the next gondola of grapes being harvested and tons of tubs ready for delivery.
Most vineyards are machine harvested. Sturdier red grapes and Riesling tend to work better with machine harvest because the clusters hold together. It takes a crew of two to three people an hour to pick an acre with a harvester. White grapes are usually harvested late at night or early in the mornings when it is still cool and the more resilient red grapes during the day.
Some winemakers prefer hand-picked grapes which is more costly. Using a knife to cut the stem of each cluster, it would take 12 to 18 pickers to harvest an acre of grapes in that hour. But the bulk of Washington’s wine crop is picked by machine because of a shortage of pickers.
As the weather cools, grapes mature more slowly, giving them more “hang time,” this allows winemakers to make room in the fermenters. This works well as long as it doesn’t rain. Depending on when the rains come, harvesting and fermenting will likely continue through the end of October.
You can Catch the Crush in Yakima Valley on October 11th and 12th. This well-known event celebrates the harvest with wine tastings and releases, grape stomps, crush activities, tours, hors d’oeuvres and live music. Forty-two wineries are each holding harvest parties during the weekend. Premier passes are available online for $30. wineyakimavalley.org
When you go to wine country this time of year, here’s a primer so you understand what the heck they’re talking about.
Crush – a whirlwind season of activity in the wineries at harvest time.
Barrel – made of oak and holds 60 – 100 gallons
Bottle shock – after bottling, the dumb condition of the wine from the filtering and bottling machines.
Botrytis Cinerea – beneficial mold that forms on the skins of ripe grapes that eventually concentrates sugars and flavors.
Brix – a measurement of the sugars; winemakers measure at harvest to determine maturity.
Cap – the “crust” that forms on the top of the fermenting wine.
Cuvaison – juice and skins are fermented longer for color and additional tannins.
Cuvee – a blend of different grapes or different harvests or different vineyards.
Estate Grown – must be within 50 miles of the winery.
Fermenter – great big plastic tubs that hold a lot of crushed grapes that ferment away.
Fining – filters stuff out of the wine before bottling.
Must – freshly pressed juice that has skins, seeds, and stems.
Ph – the acids in a wine. In the life of a grape, it’s very high at the start and lowers as the sugars grow.
Press – a wooden barrel shaped vat with a funnel like bottom where the must is pressed and the juice is then pumped into the fermenters.
Punch down – During fermentation, winemakers will punch down the cap twice a day to give the wine more color and flavor
Sur –lie – Tricky practice of leaving the spent yeast cells in the fermenter. Gives the wine another dimension.
Topping – Oak barrels allow a wine to evaporate, concentrating the flavors. Air, however, is detrimental to wine so barrels are topped up to eliminate the air in a barrel.
Verjus – high acid wine made from unripe grapes, usually used in cooking.
Wine thief – a long tube used to extract wine from the barrels.