What's Happening at the Winery: Summer Edition

Growing grapes and making wine is a year-round affair. Let’s take a closer look at just what’s happening across PA Wine Land during each season. While spring was all about setting the table for future success, summer involves plenty of action, punctuated by periods of watchful waiting.

First a little background. By the end of May, all of the buds will be open. The last ones to emerge are the late-ripening reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot. About a month later, tiny flowers will bloom from those buds — each a potential future grape. Fun fact: The flowers of grapevines are called “perfect flowers” because they pollinate themselves without the need for bees.

The next step is “fruit set.” Petals fall from the flowers, leaving behind little green orbs. This is the first opportunity for a winemaker or vineyard manager to assess their eventual yield. A lot can still go wrong — we’ll cover the weather in a second — but this is a major indicator of how the vines fared over the winter and through any spring frost.

Ironically, there is such a thing as too much fruit. The juice of each grape should be intense and full of sugar (which is fermented into alcohol and provides a wine’s flavor backbone). To achieve that intensity, vineyard workers thin the less-than-stellar-looking bunches from the vines, allowing the plants to put all their nutrients and energy into the A Team.

The staff will also spend a lot of time during the summer trimming and pruning the leafy canopy, making sure to strike a balance of ample foliage (as we all remember from high school biology, that’s where the photosynthesis takes place) and room for sunshine. The latter keeps the remaining leaves healthy and also prevents a buildup of moisture around the bunches, which can lead to rot.

August is an exciting time in the rows. In Pennsylvania, a process called veraison (verre-ray-shun) begins. While all grapes start out green, they obviously don’t stay that way. This is the moment when they transform, and the reds, pinks, and yellows of the vineyard come to life. If you visit a PA winery during August, ask permission to scope out the vines and catch this gorgeous moment.

While budding, fruit set, and veraison happen every year, the timing and the outcome of those biological processes depend heavily on the weather. One of the major summer activities for all folks in the East Coast wine industry is watching the skies, hoping for warm, dry days. Turns out that perfect weather for sipping wine at a vineyard is also perfect weather for making wine at a vineyard.

Things can be too dry, though.

“If there’s no water, the vines will start to shut down,” explains Cain Hickey, Penn State‘s statewide Viticulture Extension Educator. “All of a sudden, this vine is trying to ripen the fruit, which is parasitic on the vine. It’s a perennial plant — it wants to survive next year, and the fruit is demanding all these resources. I want maybe an inch or two of rain throughout the month, scattered in half-inch increments; we don’t want deluge storms.”

That delicate dance — dry soil, but not too dry and happening at the right moments — was echoed by winemaker Ed Lazzerini of Vox Vineti in a story about plotting out his vineyard.

“You really want to induce ‘water stress’ in the vines, especially at certain key times of the growing season,” he explained. “If you look at all the great wine growing regions of the world, the one thing you’ll find in common is that they induce water stress, either because they don’t get much rain during the growing season, or they have really steep slopes, or they have very rocky soils.”

So now we’ve covered the vineyard. How about the winery? While some 2020 vintages have already been bottled and poured, many are still awaiting their debut. Most wines spend some time in either steel tanks or oak barrels before hitting the glass. For white wines, that can be as little as three-to-six months; for red wines, 12-to-36 months in barrels is more typical. Winemakers and their staff are constantly tasting, trying to figure out the right moment to move their liquid gold into the bottle. Book a behind-the-scenes tasting at a Pennsylvania winery and they might just let you try one of these in-process wines right out of the barrel.

Speaking of visiting, summer is busy in the vineyard, and it is also incredibly busy in the tasting room. A major role of the season is selling wine and entertaining the thirsty crowds who show up ready to while away the hours. Hospitality and marketing staff are hard at work, putting together events, planning special releases, and luring vacationers and day-trippers alike to their vine-side tables. You should be one of them!