What's Happening at the Winery: Fall Edition

It’s showtime (aka autumn in the vineyard)! This is the time of year when all the hard work — every vine pruned during the frigid winter, every bud nurtured during dewy spring mornings, every canopy trimmed and pest managed during the hot summer afternoons — bears fruit. Literally. Harvest is on the horizon.

But before the big moment arrives, there is more waiting to do. Winemakers and vineyard managers spend most of early fall assessing the grapes and watching the weather. The key is to pick the fruit at peak ripeness before rot sets in or hungry creatures destroy the bunches. In an ideal world, the decision on when to harvest would be based solely on the grapes, but this is winemaking in the northeast, and weather often plays a big role. A bad storm or cold snap can cause the team to leap into action, picking the grapes and rescuing months of toil from the impending wrath of mother nature.

While most Pennsylvania wineries use mechanical harvesters — large machines that travel down the rows, pulling the clusters off the vines — some still rely on the original technology: human hands. There are also operations that do both, using industrial equipment on some blocks while deploying hand-harvesting on some of the more sensitive (and valuable) grapes. Late-season ice wine harvest is pretty much always done by hand.

Back at the winery, the fruit is dumped or funneled into a de-stemmer to remove the stems which contain an excess of tannins, and then a crusher. The resulting mixture of juice and skins is called “must.”

This is when the journey for red and white wines diverge. Most red grapes remain in contact with their skins, which will provide most of the color, during primary fermentation. A notable exception is teinturiers, the rare grape that boast red flesh. Rosés also stay “on the skins” for a short period to achieve their pink hue. The skins and seeds contain tannins, an important flavor component in most red wines.

For white wines, the fruit is pressed, leaving only juice, before initial fermentation. That first round, when sugars in the grapes begin to be converted into alcohol, is typically done in open tanks and lasts a few days. The subsequent secondary fermentation takes two to three weeks and is done with minimal exposure to air.

During this whole process, winemakers can wield their skills, making decisions and manipulating the steps that will impact the final product: How long should the primary fermentation last? How long should a rosé remain in contact with the skins? If they are using added yeast, what strain should they deploy? Should the fermented wine go into barrels or steel tanks for aging?

This process — harvest, crush, fermentation — is repeated over and over, as different varietals are harvested. Vineyard blocks ripen at different rates. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay tend to be picked early in the season, while Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are kept on the vine as long as the weather allows.

Even though the grapes have been removed, work in the vineyard isn’t over for the season. Between harvest and first frost, the vines continue to take on nutrients from the soil, storing carbohydrates in the cane (the woody part of the vine) that will last them through winter. Most of the leaves also remain, conducting photosynthesis. Weeding, fertilizing, water management, and pest control are all important after harvest — these steps ensure that the plants thrive during the winter cold, making it through to bud break the following spring.

With all this activity, fall is an excellent time to visit a Pennsylvania winery — some even offer backstage tours of the harvesting process. It’s also the ideal season for patio sipping, fire pits, and colorful foliage. Get your camera ready!