Harvesting grapes to make wine is not only the first step individual grapes make towards the finished bottle, but it is also the busiest time of the year for a winery. Festivals and events focusing around the excitement of the annual grape harvest keep the tradition and anticipation in full bloom.
Wine Grape Harvest Time
In general, August, September, and October mark prime time for the annual grape harvest for most wineries in Europe and North America. Australia, New Zealand, South America, and South Africa, landing decidedly below the equator, typically harvest from February to April.
Both hemispheres often have harvest extensions on either side of their harvest windows depending on the individual growing season, grape ripeness, and various vintage factors. Late harvest ice wines are the glorious harvest exceptions in both hemispheres. The grapes are typically left on the vine to increase the sugar content and may be harvested up to a few months after the traditional harvest.
Order of Grape Harvest
Sparkling wine grapes are harvested first (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir) to ensure lower sugar levels (Brix). Most of the white wine grapes make their way to crush. Viticulturally speaking, the red wine grapes are typically next in the harvest line, as they take a bit longer to reach full maturation. Finally, the ice wines make their way to crush after undergoing some serious dehydration on the vine to produce a raisin-like grape with highly concentrated sugars—perfect for dessert wines.
Grape Harvesting Options
Traditional hand-harvesting and mechanical harvesting are the two routes that a winery can take to get the grapes off the vine and ready for crush. Hand-harvesting affords more precise selection and tends to do a better job of protecting the grape’s juice content from oxidation due to damaged skins.
Mechanical harvesters allow for a more efficient, often cost-effective, process and are well-suited for large vineyards that lay on a flat patch of earth. The type of harvest—hand-picking, mechanical harvesters, or a combination of the two, is largely influenced by the winemaker’s final wine style goals.
Factors Affecting the Grape Harvest
The individual grape variety, the ripeness factor, and the weather factor have the greatest influence on “when” to harvest a cluster of grapes. Primarily it’s the grape’s tannin, acid, and sugar content that determines how ripe the grape actually is and they are key components for influencing a wine’s future finesse and strategic presence.
The weather has a tremendous impact on how the grapes in a given year will behave in a bottle of wine. For starters, the ideal weather for growing grapes includes a winter that is cool with good moisture. However, once spring hits heavy moisture is “discouraged” and throughout the summer cool nights with temperate days is the goal. During the actual harvest, wineries are praying for dry weather to bring the grapes home.
Wineries want to get the grapes to crush, where the grapes are not “smashed” but “gently split” so that the juice starts to flow, as quickly as possible. Great pains are taken to escalate the process while keeping the grapes from becoming too warm during the transport from vineyard to the crusher. For example, many grape varietals are cut from the vine in the cool, early morning hours to help keep the grapes’ astringency to a minimum.
Experience the Wine Grape Harvest–Pick, Stomp and Drink the Grapes!
- Sonoma County’s Grape Camp lets you experience the thrill of the harvest for three full days!
- St. Supery’s Harvest Adventure features grape stomping and wine tasting.
- Paso Robles' Wine Harvest Weekend includes grape stomps, blending seminars, and lots of wine tasting.
- Columbia Valley's “Catch the Crush” event features grape stomps, winery tours, harvest activities, and much more.
- Folie à Deux Winery has a fun Harvest Blog that allows you to experience the harvest virtually through the eyes of their current intern, William Goebel. It's an easy read and certainly offers a real-life look at the rigors of what a grape harvest entails!
Whether you choose to witness the harvest firsthand or just discover it once the grapes are safely inside the bottle, it is truly the tangible culmination of a solid year's worth of work, care, and expertise.