The harvest season is a gruelling but crucial period for wine producers; it marks the culmination of a year of patient monitoring and attentive care in the vineyard. Timing is critical; the grapes must be picked at their optimal ripeness to ensure the best starting point for producing a fine wine.
It is also a fascinating time of year to cycle through the vineyards, watch the grape harvest in action and take in the stunning changing colours of the Languedoc. The sun can be pretty scorching in the summer months, but cooler temperatures begin to return in September allowing for longer rides.
When are the grapes ready for harvest?
Due to the hot and sunny climate of the Languedoc region, the harvest generally begins by the end of August which earlier than many of the other wine growing regions in France. The start of the harvest each year is fixed in each department by the regional wine producers’ association. In general, this date is set by assessing the maturity of the grapes at about 100 days after the first bloom, but this varies greatly depending on a number of parameters such as the type of grape, the latitude and exposure of the vineyard and the style of wine to be produced. In all cases, it is necessary that the grape has reached the desired degree of maturity, and the sugar / acid ratio is stabilised.
Manual or mechanical?
Many purists will insist on the superiority of harvesting by hand, claiming that the machinery is too brutal for the stems and vines. However, the mechanical harvesters are increasingly well adapted, and can offer a solution for large farms as they save considerable time and labour. In addition, it is critical that the harvest is picked very quickly when it has reached its optimal ripeness. Thus, although no machine can replace the human hand, able to sort cluster-by-cluster with gentleness and discernment selecting only the best bunches, grapes picked too late will become withered in the sun and will oxidise essentially ruining their wine-making potential.
Day or night?
It is best to harvest the grapes when it is cooler. Therefore, when day time temperatures are very hot, the most vigilant of winemakers opt to harvest at night or very early in the morning.
What is next?
The harvest is now completed here in Languedoc. It has not been a stellar yield partly due to the mild winter and partly due to the heavy rain and hail that arrived just before the harvest could begin. The exacting process of turning it into wine now begins. This is where the art of the winemaker really comes into play – working with the specific qualities of this year’s crop to make it into a characterful and balanced wine.
It is a perfect time to tour the local vineyards as they are full of activity and you can see the early stages of the winemaking in action. And with so many small independent vineyards in the region, you can easily cycle from one Domaine to the next.