It’s called vendange in France, vendemmia in Italy, vendimia in Spain and vintage in English-speaking countries. And it makes autumn the busiest time in the winemaker’s calendar.
As we move into autumn, winemakers are looking anxiously at the skies as pickers race to gather in the grapes. The grape harvest, or “vintage”, has been underway for more than a month in some of Australia’s warmer wine regions – in the Hunter Valley it traditionally starts around Australia Day. It can continue until late May in cooler regions like Tasmania.
Timing it Right
The timing of the harvest is critical. When the grapes reach that optimum balance of sweetness, acidity and tannins, it’s critical that they’re picked and processed without delay. A change in the weather, too much heat, unexpected rain, even hail or frost, can make all the difference between a good year and a dismal one. Some varieties ripen earlier, with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir among the first grapes picked while Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sangiovese are late varieties.
Day and Night
Night time harvests are becoming common, with cooler temperatures producing less oxidative stress on the grapes. In Australia, driving through wine country at night, you see the glowing lights and hear the throb of mechanical harvesters as they motor up and down the rows. In France, some vineyards pick by hand at night, providing workers with lamps on their heads. Sounds like a recipe for seriously damaged fingers.
Around the world, there are many customs attached to the grape harvest. In France, picking can’t begin until the local prefecture agrees to ‘lever le ban des vendange’ (lift the ban on the harvest). But they do make the decision on the advice of local experts. In Jerez, Spain, the first official pressing takes place when the ‘Queen of the Harvest’ throws grapes into a press for four men to tread. The communal stomping of the first grapes is a common custom elsewhere, too, including in Greece, Italy and Romania. To guarantee a good season, the last grapes harvested each year in Germany must be brought in by an ox-drawn cart.
Individual winemakers have their own superstitions. For many, it involves shaving. Or, rather, not shaving (and not cutting their hair) from the time the first fruit is picked until the last grapes are in. Some have a lucky shirt they wear every day during vintage (phew!). Others feel it’s bad luck to start on a particular day: a Friday, say, or a Sunday. And many will not start the pick under a full moon. One superstition we can all relate to is “don’t wash the car until the harvest is over”. Because as sure as you do, it’s likely to rain.
The gathering in of the grapes is a time of celebration, marked by festivals and special events. The biggest wine festival in the world takes place, not in France or Italy as you might expect, but in Germany. Held in the town of Bad Dürkheim in September (because, of course, grapes are picked in the northern autumn) it is oddly named the Wurstmarkt. Apparently the Germans down a lot of wurst, aka sausages, while enjoying their wine.
Here in Australia, perhaps the most notable wine festival (and the oldest) is the Barossa Vintage Festival, founded in 1947. It’s held every two years so if you want to go this year, sorry, you can’t. But there are plenty of other options. There’s ‘Tastes of Rutherglen’ on 7-8 March, the Griffith Vintage Festival, with a distinctly Italian influence, on 11 April, or the inaugural Vintage: Tamar happening in Launceston on 29-30 May. And that’s just for starters. So get into the spirit of the harvest, join the fun, taste the wines. Lucky shirts and unshaven chins optional.