How to Harvest in Prince Edward County

How to Harvest in Prince Edward County

Harvest is the most crucial time of year for grape growers and winemakers. If the adage “You can’t make good wine from bad grapes” is to be believed, the decisions made during this period will determine the quality of wine made in that vintage. Every September, winemakers in the County prepare for a month or two of early mornings, late nights, and no time off. Days are spent monitoring the weather, assessing the vineyard, and the multitude of tasks that come along with picking, processing, and fermenting grapes into wine. Everything during this period is time sensitive, and a day of lost work could mean a drastic change to the outcome of the wine.

When To Harvest
The onset of ripening, véraison, begins in August. As the grapes change colour, sugar levels rise and acid levels slowly decline. The ideal ratio of each depends on the style of wine the grapes will be made into. Sparkling wine is harvested early, while acid levels are still high and full ripeness isn’t necessary. Late harvest wines are left on the vine late into the fall, when the grapes have reached their highest potential sugar levels. Most table wines are somewhere in the middle, when sugar, acid, tannin, and flavour are in perfect balance.

Sugar is measured in brix, a scale that can be used to determine the potential alcohol of the grapes. The County’s short growing season mean grapes are typically harvested around 19.5-23 brix, with a potential alcohol of 11-13%. The lower sugar level of County grapes are one of the main elements of our signature style — subtle, delicate wines made with finesse and nuance.

There are several types of organic acids present in most wines. The total is measured as titratable acidity, or TA, and is an indicator of how acidic a wine will actually taste. The pH of a wine can correlate to the TA, but is actually a measure of free hydrogen ions — important for the wines health and stability. The cooler nights and shorter growing season in the County slow the decline of acid in the vineyard, meaning acids are still fairly high when fruit reaches optimal ripeness. These higher acid levels translate into a wine that is crisp and refreshing, the ideal profile for a variety of food pairings.

Tannin is present in the seeds, skin, and stems of grapes. It increases as the grape darkens in colour, and provides an astringency to the finished wine that acts as an important structural element on the palate. Tannin is only present in wine that has had substantial skin contact, such as orange wines or skin-fermented reds. The protein in red meat and cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano balance out the mouth-drying sensation of tannin, making a tannic red wine the perfect companion to a grilled steak.

Themost subjective factor is flavour, and it’s up to the winemaker’s trained palate to determine when the grapes have reached their peak ripeness. Generally, when the flavours have evolved from green and vegetal to fruity, the grapes are ready for harvest. Flavour is unique to the terroir, a combination of soil composition, elevation, slope, and climate. The concentration of flavour can change from year to year, but individual vineyard sites are thought to have their own unique character — sometimes highlighted by single vineyard bottlings.

Finding this balance is the ideal, but everything comes second to the whims of Mother Nature. A forecast of hail will mean an early harvest, to avoid grapes being knocked to the ground or decimated on the vine. An unexpected heavy rain may delay the harvest beyond the optimal picking window, as the waterlogged and bloated berries will need several days to dry out and return to their normal concentration.
How To Harvest

Picking in the County is mostly done by hand. The crown of the vine is kept low to the ground so it can be covered through the harsh winters, making machine harvest difficult. Hand harvesting is costly and time consuming, but yields higher quality control and higher quality wine. Skilled vineyard workers can assess the fruit on the vine, and will only harvest what is acceptable to the winemaker, leaving the disease-infected berries or clusters on the ground. If necessary, the fruit can be inspected at the winery, bin by bin across a sorting table before pressing or destemming.

Conventionally, red grapes are mechanically destemmed and left to ferment on the skins, while white grapes are immediately pressed off the skins and the juice is fermented with no solids. Current trends are changing this process, in what is mostly a return to tradition. Each County winery has their own style, but we’re starting to see some wineries experiment with whites that are destemmed and left to ferment on the skins, for days or even months to extract that coveted orange hue. More and more wineries are also experimenting with whole cluster ferments, bypassing the destemming process altogether. The stems create space within the ferment for air to circulate, cooling down temperatures enough to keep the process slow and gentle while the whole berries gently crush under their own weight.
Where the Magic Happens

Alcoholic fermentation happens in the first few weeks after harvest, whether it’s in a concrete vessel filled with whole grapes, a stainless steel tank, or a barrel filled with juice. The time it takes to ferment sugar into alcohol is affected by the type of yeast present and the temperature.

Indigienous yeast can be slower to start and take longer to finish, but arguably produce wines with more complexity and a better representation of the wines terroir. Commercial yeasts can produce predictable, reliable results — important when a single batch of wine could end up a mistake worth tens of thousands of dollars. Indiginous yeast as a concept makes sense, but is only a reality in a winery that has never used commercial yeasts and is careful to sterilize any used equipment coming through its doors. Commercial yeasts can survive in the winery long after the wine they fermented as been bottled and sold. These yeasts can start a fresh ferment spontaneously, but their status as wild is up for interpretation.

Once fermentation is done, wine is moved to an ageing vessel for élevage — the ageing process that transforms raw, newly fermented wine into a finished product. Harvest at Redtail Vineyards is coming to a close and our wines are making their way into the cellar for the winter. See our full Harvest 2019 photo album here, and check back in a few months for our cellar update.