Here at Burch Family Wines, we have eagerly commenced the most fantastic time of year – harvest season! For all intents and purposes, this is when the fun really begins for Australia’s winemakers, as it heralds the start of a new winemaking season. Although it varies from year to year, in Australia harvest season usually begins around February and ends in April. During this time, the winery is abuzz with vintage workers picking the best fruit that will eventually be made into our much-loved bottles of wine.
So what exactly happens in the lead up to and during harvest season, and just how integral is it to the production of our wine?
There are many small, unsung, but vitally important tasks that take place in January and February every year in both our vineyards and our winery to ensure everything is prepared adequately for a successful grape harvest and vintage. While the vagaries of weather and the sheer number of processes and variables involved in picking grapes and making wine guarantee that there will be some unexpected wrinkles and challenges along the way, savvy planning and prior preparation can prevent many a late night headache or lost production hour, and that’s something our dedicated winemaking team are keen to avoid at all costs.
Preparation for vintage is an ongoing task throughout the year, however it’s when the Christmas break winds up and the calendar turns to January that particular important activities come into focus and the general level of activity around the winery really cranks up.
In the vineyard
As the summer spraying program finishes up, another potential threat to the developing grapes requires attention. The native Silvereye, a small but determined bird, likes nothing more than to feast on ripening grapes, generally pecking a hole in a berry to extract a drop of juice as the fruit begins to swell with sugar. The laborious application of nets to the vines is the only way to prevent this – luckily the Silvereye generally lacks the courage to intrude too far into the vineyard so the priority is to protect the vines that are closest to the tree lines and windbreaks.
Occasionally perfectly timed flowering of native trees gives our team a lucky break. The only thing the bird enjoys more than our precious grapes is the blossom from the native Marri or Red Gum tree, so when the right conditions allow these trees to reach full flower at the same time as peak ripening, mother nature gives us a helping hand and “bird pressure” is substantially reduced.
Tracking our ripening grapes
Sampling the ripening grapes becomes a constant activity as the proposed picking dates draw closer. Our winemakers need to analyse the sugars and acids that are accumulating inside the maturing berries and the results obtained give an indication of “physiological ripeness”. This is the point at which these two crucial constituent compounds are present in appropriate quantities to ensure a proper fermentation of the juice into wine can occur.
Bunches for sampling need to be obtained from different points along the vine rows as ripening occurs unevenly throughout the vineyard. Our lab technicians use small scale equipment to crush and press the juice out of sample bunches for testing, and when sugars and acids reach indicative levels our senior winemakers will start walking the rows themselves to taste the grapes, looking for familiar flavour characteristics.
The chemistry can only take you so far when determining a picking date; “flavour ripeness” is just as crucial to determining the most beneficial time to bring the fruit into the winery for processing, and the size and development of the seeds and skins is equally crucial to preventing unwanted flavours developing during and after the ferment. The ultimate decision of when to pick will always be a combination of science, experience and intuition, and that’s a combination our winemakers pride themselves on getting right.
Preparing for the harvest
While all this is happening our staff are hard at work on a range of other vineyard tasks which are undertaken to ensure an efficient and safe harvest can proceed. The safety of our hand-pickers and vineyard machinery, such as mechanical grape harvesters, are of particular concern as much of the picking occurs at night or very early in the morning, making visibility a concern. Removing summer grass from the mid-rows helps to clear out any snakes that might be lurking and smoothing out the vineyard areas helps to remove (as much as possible) potential hazards for feet and vehicle tyres. Posts and wires are also checked thoroughly and any breakages fixed.
In part 2 of Gearing up for Harvest Season we’ll discuss preparing the winery itself for vintage. Click here to check it out.