It’s a long journey from tender seedling to wine in your bottle. Below, we dive into the lifecycle of a grape, giving you the lowdown on your favorite fabulous, fickle fruit.
Typically purchased from plant nurseries, young grapevines are planted in rows, ideally in plots chosen for soil quality, exposure to light, and good drainage. Once planted, it will be up to three years before the vines bear usable fruit.
During the winter and early spring, each vine gets individual attention. Wine grapes grow on year-old shoots of wood called “cane,” so the spent wood from the previous season is trimmed off — often over 90 percent of the visible vine is removed. The pruner also determines which new shoots look the most promising; those decisions have a huge impact on yield and quality. Pruning trains and shapes the vines, giving them that familiar T shape.
This is the moment when the buds first emerge from the vines or cane. In Pennsylvania, this typically happens in late April or May, depending on the weather and the region.
Over the next month or so, vines will sprout leaves and eventually bunches of small flowers. Each of these blossoms is a potential future grape. This is a precarious time in the vineyard as a late frost can severely damage the delicate blooms. Fun fact: The flowers of grapevines are called “perfect flowers” because they pollinate themselves without the need for bees.
The pollinated flowers drop their petals, revealing tiny green spheres — baby grapes! The number of orbs is a good indicator of future yields in a vineyard.
To prepare for ripening, some vineyard managers will thin underperforming bunches from the vines. This allows the plant to put more energy — and essential sugars — into the prime fruit. The team will also trim the canopy (the plant’s dense foliage), allowing the ideal amount of sunlight and air to reach the grapes.
Pronounced “verre-ray-shun,” this is the most dynamic time of year in the vineyard as unripe green grapes take on their final red, pink, or yellow hue. In Pennsylvania, this typically happens in August.
In late summer and fall, the cane hardens and turns a deeper brown while grapes continue to ripen. When sugars reach the right levels, teams rush to pick the fruit at its peak. This high-stakes moment typically happens in September and October.
After harvest, grapes are dumped or funneled into a de-stemmer — the stems contain an excess of tannins — and then a crusher. Red wines undergo primary fermentation while in contact with the skins (which provides color and tannins). When it comes to white wines, the process is a little different: The fruit is pressed, separating the juice from the skins before fermentation.
Here’s where the magic happens: During this next stage, yeast converts sugars into alcohol, turning grape juice into wine. The initial fermentation generally takes 3-5 days and is done with the liquid open to the air. The secondary fermentation, which is anaerobic (done with minimal exposure to air), takes 2-3 weeks.
After fermentation and aging — sometimes in barrels, sometimes in steel or concrete — the finished wine is put into bottles. You eventually come along, uncork or unscrew it, then drink it. Huzzah!
After harvest, the foliage falls from the vines. As temperatures drop, grapevines go dormant and begin waiting for the cycle to start all over again.