It’s hard to believe that it’s already August and another harvest season is rapidly approaching. As the summer days grow long and hot, the level of preparation increases. The local area wineries have been busy all summer pruning back canopies and keeping the vines healthy and disease free. Harvest time is fraught with emotions ranging from the excitement of finally picking the fruit to pre harvest jitters about weather, pests, and diseases. While vintners scurry around making sure that we have the right amount of yeast in our inventories, room for new grapes in the cellar, and revving up for the retail season, I thought I might entertain you with a few funny facts about grapes and wine growing!
1. Scarecrows aren’t just Halloween decorations. This is the time of the year that we look toward the sky with concern. While there is the constant worry about too much rain prior to harvest, the biggest concern is the invasion of the birds! Birds typically begin pecking at grapes when the fruit reaches about 15% of sugar. In order to combat their appetite, vineyards use a combination of netting and sound devices to curb their appetite!
2. Harvest is a matter of taste. When the grapes are ready we taste for the structural elements of the wine – sugar, acid and tannin – are in balance. This means that the tannins are no longer green or grassy tasting, the fruit is sweet and there is still enough acid on the tongue.
3. Pickers can be choosers. Most of the wineries in New Jersey choose to pick by hand. The use of mechanical harvesters can be quicker and less expensive, but they can be abusive and rough on the grapes. Human pickers leave unripe or moldy grapes on the vine and don’t risk putting them in with the good grapes. When grapes are harvested by hand, they are cut off the vine in individual bunches and gently placed into small containers that usually hold 30-40 pounds of fruit.
4. Red-wine grapes aren’t really red, and all grapes are gooey green on the inside and make white juice. My favorite time of the growing season is early August called veraison. During veraison, the most common varieties of “red wine” grapes produced in New Jersey turn from little green marbles to beautiful dark blue, plump grapes. After harvest white grapes are separated from their stems and skins and only the juice is fermented. Red grapes are also separated from their stems but the entire berry is placed into the fermentation tub. Red wines get their color from the skins during fermentation. In the case of a blush wine (like our Monmouth Blush), our wine makers leave the skins in the mix just long enough to give the juice a pinkish hue.
5. Vintners don’t have purple feet. While the notion of harvest congers images of Lucy jumping around in a vat of wine, wine production has become increasingly mechanized. The process in New Jersey and most of the United States involves the use of a de-stemming machine and mechanical presses. During fermentation, at 4JG’s we still “punch down” the old fashion way. We punch down with stainless steel paddles that look like giant potato mashers down. As the wine ferments, the skins rise to the top of the tank and form a thick "cap. It's important to break up the cap a few times a day to increase the extraction of color and flavor, and to prevent the cap from drying out and/or developing bacterial problems.
6. How many grapes? When our guests gaze out over the vineyards before harvest, one question comes to mind, how many grapes are in a bottle of wine? Products estimates can make you dizzy…but here goes. Each cluster of grape yields anywhere from .2 pounds to a full pound depending upon variety. For example, the house favorite, Cayuga White, is a robust white grape with large clusters. Each cluster can weigh between ½ and a full pound! However, 4JG’s Vignole, is a stingy grape with small fist-sized clusters that weight no more than .2 pounds….and that’s with the stems and seeds! Average clusters contain 100 grapes, each grape with an average weight of 1.6 grams….average, average, average comes to about 7 clusters per bottle….For harvest purposes, we get anywhere from 2.5 to 17 tons per acre depending upon the growing season and grape variety.
Now that your head is loaded with some fun harvest facts…spend an afternoon at one of over 40 active vineyards and wineries across the State of New Jersey. Activities include food/wine pairings, grape stomping, hay rides, and grape picking. Regardless of the activity, it’s a chance to see some of the prettiest farms New Jersey has to offer! Here in Monmouth County, 4JG’s Orchards & Vineyards is open every weekend beginning September 7th through December 22.