First Harvest – Pinot Gris

The first week of October: the grower stands at the edge of his vineyard, a tiny smile growing at the edge of his mouth. The grower is pleased with the prospect of this imminent harvest. The pinot gris grapes in this three year old vineyard are nearly ready to harvest. This growing season has been very good for the young vines. Earlier in the summer the grower thinned the crop properly, leaving enough clusters to give a small harvest, allowing the vines to make good growth this year, filling the trellis with leaves and shoots now near the end of the growing season.

Since verasion, the beginning of the ripening, in early September, birds have been a worry, as usual. Flocks of migrating starlings descend upon the vines, voraciously eating grapes. If left alone, a large flock can devour the entire crop in only a few days. 
What to do? The grower uses various scare devices, among them strips of bright metallic tape that reflect the sunlight in brief, bright bursts, like strobelights. Birds have a innate instinctive fear of sudden bright white light flashes. [Probably a genetically encoded primoridal memory, from the flash of the exploding asteroid striking earth that, 65 million years ago, destroyed the dinosaurs, genetic ancestors of birds.] 
And if these tape strips don’t work [and they don’t always, or even often] the grower plays, through loudspeakers stationed throughout the vineyard, the recorded distress cries of starlings, preceeded by the attack cry of the sharp-shinned hawk. Many starlings, hearing this, believe that one of their brethren has just been attacked by the notorious hawk, and vacate the vineyard. But not all believe. So the grower also uses propane cannons, which fire randomly, adding to the confusion of light and sound that may, just may, convince the hungery starling flock to move south down the flyway to another eating place.

During this critical ripening time the grower visits the vineyard every hour or two between dawn and dusk, checking on the status of the bird flocks. And when he is in the vineyard, he avails himself of portable pyrotechnics, hand-held lauch pistols that send up screaming missiles, and exploding firecrackers, both intended to frighten the birds away from the grapes. During those weeks after Labor Day, as the grapes turn color and the sugar levels rise, the vineyard resembles a war zone – and, indeed, it is in many ways.

The grower patrols the perimeter, driving the enemy back; the birds seeking food arrive each morning, and during the day and into the evening, and the grower drives them away, hoping that they will move on south toward their winter home before they consume the entire grape crop. And each week or so, new flocks arrive from the north. It goes on and on – the vineyard filling with broadcast distress cries, reflected white light, cannon blasts and screaming missiles – birds land, grab a grape, and fly away.

As the sugars in the grapes increase, the berries swell and soften, and the pinot gris grape turns from green to bronze color. Once the sugar has reached 17 percent of the weight of the berry, the grapes are ripe enough to harvest for sparkling wine. The grower must decide whether he wishes to produce sparkling wine, or wait several days or weeks for the sugars to reach the 20 or 22 percent level that would make a nicely balanced still wine, or perhaps hold out for super-ripe grapes of 24 or 26 percent sugar, to make a late harvest style dessert wine. In this young vineyard, the grower will not even consider late harvest – these vines, bearing as they are their first crop, should not be subjected to the rigors of super-ripening their grapes. The decision is whether to pick early, for sparkling wine, or chance waiting for the grapes to fully ripen for still wine.
Picking early will give the vines more time after harvest to acclimate themselves for the upcoming winter cold.

Generally, the grower will opt for this in the first year or two of the vines productive life, years three and four of the vineyard. Sometimes, however, conditions warrant letting the grapes remain on even these young vines until they are fully ripe.
This year, in this vineyard, the grower sees that the vines are growing exceptionally well, that the crop has been thinned properly and the vines are not being subjected to stresses like water-deficit, nor has the foliage been attacked by leaf-chewing insects or harmed by fungi such as powdery mildew. He decides that it is safe to allow a portion of the vines to ripen their crop to 21 percent sugar. He will harvest about half of the vineyard earlier, at 18 percent sugar, using those grapes to produce a sparkling wine.

The vine rows in this vineyard run north and south, and the land slopes down from the north to the south. The grower decides to pick the south half of each row early. When the first frost comes, killing the vine leaves, those vines on the southern, lower, end of the rows are more likely to be frosted than the vines at the northern, higher, end of the rows. By picking the grapes earlier on those lower vines, the grower will give those vines a few more days to use their photosynthetic factories, their leaves, to produce food stuff for the vine roots, making food reserves to sustain the living vine tissues through the long cold winter.

And so it is that the first grapes are picked from this young vineyard this first week of October. The baskets of grapes go to the grower’s wine cellar, where they are pressed and the juice fermented into a light bodied, dry wine. This wine will be the basis of an assembled blend, or cuvee, including other, similar wines from other vineyards – the cuvee assembled next spring, prepared for the second fermentation, bottled, fermented in the bottle and laid down en tirage for three years of aging before being finished. A long time to wait, but a worthwhile wait, for the evanescent effervescence of the sparkling wine.

And now, this fall, within a couple of weeks, by the third week of October, the remaining half of the vineyard has ripened to 21 percent sugar by weight. The birds have been fought off, there are yet grapes to harvest. The pickers go out into the morning dew with clippers and baskets, and harvest of this vineyard resumes. These riper grapes are carried to the wine cellar, pressed and the juice fermented as before. Because of the higher level of sugar in these grapes, the resulting wine has a higher level of alcohol, 12% instead of 10.5%. This higher alcohol, and the riper grape flavors, with the natural grape acids, produce a flavorful, balanced dry white wine. The grower will bottle this wine next spring, and enjoy the fruits of this vintage with his meals over the next several years, as he waits for the sparkling wine to mature.

With the conclusion of harvest, and the end of the growing season, the vines shed their leaves, sleep, lie dormant through the winter. They wait for spring and another season’s growing, another chance to produce fruit. And with the conclusion of harvest, the grower’s work continues. Tending the maturing wines, pruning the vines, the cycle of vine and wine rolls on.

Yes, the grower is pleased with the first harvest from this young pinot gris vineyard, he anticipates a future for this vineyard – many more years of good grapes, good wines, good times.

All is as it should be, all is well, here in the vineyard.

-Copyright © 1997 L. Mawby