Picking Fruit: What to expect from harvest time

When I am at work, rushed off my feet and explaining the concept/purpose of appassimento style drying for the fifteenth time that day, I sometimes envy our winemaker as he seems to have an easy ride. He strolls into the tasting bar with a cup of coffee, takes a look around, exchanges a few pleasantries, makes empty promises to come to the trivia nights that I sometimes host, then wanders off. What a life eh!

Now, of course I am being facetious here. Winemakers, especially ours work hard all year round and right now, with harvest just beginning it is the busiest time of the year for them. With this in mind, I wanted to catch up with Mike (our winemaker) and get to know a few things to expect on a typical day as a winemaker and what drew him into pursuing a career in wine.

Mike has been making wine and alcohol since he was 14, when he would help his aunt ferment her own ‘moonshine’, but he originally studied history and took a job in a ‘do it yourself’ wine shop in Toronto to help pay for his studies. He was initially working in retail but wanted to take it further so went back to school to specifically train in wine production. This happened 10 years ago, relatively later in life and in Mike’s own words, “It was a hobby that turned into a passion and I haven’t really looked back.”

Initially, Mike came to the Gaspereau valley in 2010 on an interim basis at Gaspereau Vineyards to cover maternity leave for their winemaker, Gina Haverstock. Upon her return he became the full time winemaker at Luckett Vineyards and is about to do his seventh ‘crush’. More excitingly though, this is his first harvest with the brand new production facility that has been constructed.

So, at the time of writing this, the 2017 harvest has just begun. Certain grapes are being picked right now and the new production facility is pretty much ready to go. So what can we expect from a typical day in harvest? “Right now, it’s all about prep,” says Mike. “Making sure that there are enough casks for the upcoming crush, cleaning them and making sure everything is good to go.”

Some wineries are bottling right now in order to free up space but, this year, Luckett’s bottled in the spring/early summer (read about this process here) so we are ready to go… patiently waiting for the storm to hit.

In previous years the crush has always been done on the patio in front of patrons to the winery and restaurant, which is a great thing for people to see. However, being on show with the sheer amount of human traffic during the day can restrict the process so, a lot of the time, the production team will do night shifts. Night shifts will probably still happen this year, but the production team can work more to their own schedule.

Actually, ‘working to their own schedule’ is a bit of a stretch because, at harvest time, you are never working to your own schedule. Nature is the great dictator when it comes to when you are going to pick. “You’re constantly looking at the weather station or your weather app, looking for when it’s going to rain, when it’s going to dry up, when we think we’re going to have to pick because the rains might be too excessive and the grapes risk splitting; or whether there are botrytis issues (see botrytis definition here) that you have to contend with,” Mike explains.

It’s all about knowing when to pick, striking when the time is right and having an understanding of the qualities of specific grapes. Grapes for sparkling wines tend to be picked earlier than others because we don’t want them to fully ripen and accumulate too much sugar. That’s why areas like Nova Scotia, South East England and Champagne have great success in their sparkling wines because there is an extra degree of acidity in the grapes due to the regions not reaching the high temperatures of areas such as Barossa Valley in Australia, Central Valley in Chile or Sonoma in California.

So how long does an average harvest last? It differs from region to region. Mike recalled a winemaker from Burgundy who was celebrating the last day of harvest despite having only started picking two weeks ago. However, here in Nova Scotia, harvest will start in mid September and go through until December, sometimes even January depending on the season and if you take ice wine into account. Ice wine grapes have to be picked when the temperatures reach -8 degrees celsius so they are normally picked in December or January.

There are only two main grape varieties in Burgundy (Chardonnay & Pinot Noir) so they have a short but intense harvest. In Nova Scotia there are considerably more so we have to take into account the fact that some of these grapes are going to ripen later than others, specifically thicker skinned red grapes. It is hard to get a specific timeline when you have a number of varietals, especially in an emerging region like Nova Scotia where there is more room for experimentation and appellation laws aren’t as strict.

On this subject, Mike went on to say, “Marcel [Luckett Vineyards’ vineyard manager] and I were looking at the numbers from last year and we saw that most of our stuff got picked after the second half of October. Although you have to be ready to go by mid-September because you occasionally have early ripening varietals or you might be picking something specifically for sparkling wine that needs to be picked earlier”.

So for Mike and Kyla (our junior winemaker), it’s going to be all systems go from now until the end of the year. The fruit is normally all in by mid-November, and that’s when the front of house team go home and recharge their batteries, but the winemakers will be working hard until the week before Christmas. In January it’s time to fill in all the paperwork that has been neglected for a few months… yes, winemakers also have to do paperwork!

– James



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