Vendemmia, vendange, vendimia: the Italians, French, and Spaniards consider the act of harvesting grapes for wine so important that it merits its own word, different even than the word used for picking grapes for eating.
And the end of the harvest in all of these countries has historically called for a special celebration.
The harvesting of the grapes for wine is one of the most interesting and in some ways mysterious parts of winemaking. When to harvest has been a question that has dogged winemakers for centuries: the ripeness of the grape must determine the answer, as the particular sugar (more ripe), acid (less ripe), and tannin levels will determine the character of the wine that is produced.
But the weather is ever present, with the threat of rain, hail, frost, or even heat exposing the grapes to damage or disease if a grower waits too long to pick.
In times of old, growers tasted the grapes to determine whether they were ready to pick, and certainly this is still the process used by the many European home-growers producing wine for their own consumption. But most modern winemakers use modern technology to assist them is scientifically measuring the sugar and acidity. But gauging the ripeness of the tannins is still a thing of mystery. It cannot be done by modern means, but only through tasting, and even then requires an experienced palate to do properly.
One the grapes are ready, time to harvest. Most people have a folkloristic picture of local peasants gathering the fruit by hand while toting around large woven baskets. But many producers now use a mechanical harvester to gather their grapes. These machines greatly reduce the time and labor involved, but they can damage the grapes and are not as discerning about which grapes are selected, so unripe grapes might find their way in the wine. And they can only be employed where conditions (both the particular vine and the landscape itself) make it possible. But hand-picking is not the romantic endeavor one likes to picture. It is a costly and time consuming process, requiring hard, unending work when the harvest is at hand, and has spawned and maintains a large need for migrant workers in wine producing regions.
Interested in trying your hand at harvesting grapes? We feature a number of cooking vacations that in the Fall offer wine harvesting itineraries, such as Roman Countryside Discovery or La Cucina Romana in the Sabine Hill. Or, we can often customize our other programs to include a wine harvesting component in the fall. Please contact us for details.
By Peg Kern
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