It is the winegrowers’ job, and pleasure, to observe and note these differences, and to adapt their harvest timing and vinification methods to the specific vineyard, in a specific year, the wines it has the potential to yield, and that which corresponds to their aesthetic values.
Let’s take a walk in the vineyard. In order to get a good feeling for how the ripening is progressing, it is essential to have followed the vines closely through the course of the year, and to have memory of how the vines behaved in prior years. Especially, we need to remember the weather up to this point, the rainfall, its quantity and timing, how the flowering occurred, and then the critical transformation at veraison.
From the time the fruit has become purple, we know that it will usually be ripe in four to eight weeks. Knowing this timing tells us when to visit the vineyard. One of the first signs we look for is the transformation of the vine shoots that support and nourish the grape clusters. Up through mid-summer, these green, herbaceous shoots are actively growing. But then we look for the growth to slow down and for the green tissue to turn brown. The tender green shoot will become the hard woody cane that prepares for next year. It is a physiological signal. This is when the fruit can truly begin to ripen. Eventually, the stem within the grape cluster may, itself, begin to lignify, beginning at the base, where it attaches to the cane. Finally, a few leaves, near the cluster, may begin to turn yellow, presaging the onset of autumn.
As these stages in the lifecycle of the grapevine evolve, we look for signs that the berries are beginning to soften. We take note as the skin of the berry becomes more tender, and the berry detaches easily from its stem, leaving a delicate “paintbrush” of the conductive fibers that nourished the berry as it developed. As the hard green pulp becomes translucent, and begins to dissolve, this ‘paintbrush’ takes on the pigment from the skin. In time, the pulp separates easily from the seeds, and the seeds, at first green and tender, progressively harden and turn brown, eventually taking on the color of a roasted coffee bean.
Before making the decision to pick, we have walked the vineyard many times, usually more than one of us. And as the fruit becomes nearly ripe, we collect samples, berries from many different clusters on many different vines, which we bring back to the winery, where we squeeze out the juice for testing. Knowing the basic chemistry (sugar and acid) certainly helps to keep us on track. But the most revealing thing is to see the color of the juice in the glass, the way it settles, and to smell the perfume. At first, the juice is green and muddy, but as the fruit ripens, depending upon the vineyard and the variety, the juice clarifies and begins to take on a pink hue. The aromas, at first frankly herbaceous, begin to evolve through fruit-floral notes, such as raspberry, cherry, and plum.
Most importantly, just as it is possible to harvest too early and to pick the fruit when it is under-ripe, so too is it possible to wait too long, and to bring in fruit that is over-ripe and has faded. The key is to find that moment, and the interesting thing is that we will not all agree...
The moment has arrived. Picked and in the bin. We can see that just a few berries are beginning to deflate, and many have easily detached from the stem. Next stop, the tank! 3
—Chris Howell, Winemaker
Text Copyright ©2012 Cain Vineyard & Winery, All Rights Reserved
1 Image 1 (top center): The grapes in each vineyard will ripen along their uniquely individual path, subject to the climate of the region, the variety, the site and the weather of the vintage. In general the fruit will evolve through several stages, beginning with green fruit, fresh fruit, mature fruit, dried fruit, and so on... In a cool year, we must be patient and wait to get beyond green fruit, whereas in a hot year, we must pay attention and move quickly to avoid jammy fruit and boiled fruit characteristics. But, in any particular vineyard, each of these factors will align differently, creating a unique fingerprint—the signature of that specific vineyard. Depending upon vineyard, the year, and our intention for the wine, the “Cain Moment” will be found somewhere in the range of maximum aromatic potential, floral-spicy, fresh fruit-mature fruit (but before dried fruit), peak of color, and in the early range of maximum of tannin-pigment complexity. Adapted from Alain Carbonneau, “Théorie de la maturation et de la typicité du raisin,” Figures 5 & 6, Le Progrès agricole et viticole, No 13-14, 2007, p. 282.
Image 2 (top left): Perfectly ripened Cabernet Sauvignon, captured by master photographer, Charles O’Rear. A few autumnal leaves surrounding the cluster tell us that the time to pick is near.
3 Image 3 (bottom center): Photo by Charles O’Rear.