Tag Archives: wine grapes

Are the Grapes Harvested Mechanically?

Since I wrote about the beginning of harvest, some of you have asked if the grapes are picked by hand or machine. The short answer is yes:

Harvest started early and with a bang, on August 1st, and then slowed down dramatically with unseasonably cool weather in the early part of the month. It’s probably a good thing – it will give the grapes more “hangtime,” which translates into richer, riper flavors.

How do you feel about mechanical harvesting?

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Today’s Wine Word: Green Harvest


“Drop crop”… “Green Thinning”… “Green Harvest”… Whatever you like to call it the term is literal and refers to removing green, immature clusters and dropping them on the ground. It may seem a bit obtuse to be removing perfectly viable fruit that isn’t even mature yet, but it’s often done in the name of flavor intensity and it can happen at several times during the growing season.

The first round may be just after flowering and fruitset, which typically happens in mid to late May. Winter pruning and springtime shoot thinning are done with certain yields in mind. If the vines are overly generous on any given year it’s smart to thin out the excess so the rest can ripen properly and be flavorful, not diluted in taste. Continue reading

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Today’s Wine Word: Phylloxera


With all due modesty, dontcha just love this photo? When I saw this vine displayed it confirmed something I’ve felt for nearly my whole life: that dormant vines are beautiful – they’re Mother Nature’s sculptures!

And, as an educator I love the graphic depiction of how virtually all wine grapes, world-wide, are grown.

As of the 1860s, vitis vinifera (European grape varieties – wine varieties) have to be grafted to American rootstock in order to survive. Yes, even in Europe.

Long story, short: Back in the 1800s, as French varieties came to the U.S. American varieties went to France. Some of the American cuttings that went to France carried a nasty pest, phylloxera, with them. Continue reading

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Cluster Thinning in the Vineyard








Napa Valley came through flowering quite nicely this year, thank you very much, and the crop is looking good.

Vineyard managers should have finished up with springtime shoot thinning by now – a way of keeping the vine in balance. And, now that we have cute little baby grape clusters hanging, it’s time to take a close look.

Believe it or not, part of managing a crop destined for fine wine production (as opposed to most wine) is counting the clusters. Yes, literally.

After the lovely weather we had during flowering (rain, hail, high winds and extreme heat can cause problems) there’s a very good chance that there are bonus, unexpected clusters out there. Unfortunately, for fine wine, more isn’t better.

If there are far more than expected there’s a chance those grapes will never get ripe, but in our climate, that’s rarely the concern. It’s just that if you add a few extra clusters per vine, the flavors can become diluted. This stuff isn’t regulated but It’s really hard to get $40.00+ for a bottle of Cab that’s kind of thin and lackluster.

Or, it could be that you see a kind of short, wimpy looking shoot in there with 3 clusters on it. There’s no way there are enough leaves on that shoot to bring three clusters to maturity. Better to go with one or two clusters, depending upon just how wimpy…

So it’s quite common to see tiny little clusters scattered on the ground around the vine rows this time of year in Napa Valley.

Shoot, leaf and cluster thinning are ongoing activities that begin in April and can continue almost up to harvest time, depending upon how things shape up. Vineyard management has become almost like gardening!

Next big event: veraison – when the grapes turn color, probably late next month.

Anybody out there making plans to visit wine country and see any of this stuff up close and personal?

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How to Select Red Wine


malbec, UC Davis

Question from Lindsay: Everytime I go to the store to buy wine for a gift or a party, I’m overwhelmed by the choices.  I know there are Merlots, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and a few other types, but I have absolutely no idea what the difference between all of them are.  To me, they are all red. Can you give a brief overview of the general differences. 

Reply: Hi, Lindsay. Thanks for writing! This is another good question that lots of other people have. A few weeks ago I decided to write about a different grape variety every week, so soon there will be fairly detailed info on the most popular varieties available on the blog. Just do a search by variety. In the meantime, a broad-brush stroke for these reds is a great idea and will be this week’s grape(s) of the week 😉

Disclaimer 😉

Characteristics vary, a little or a lot, depending upon where the wine is grown and how it was made.
Here we go:

Cabernet Sauvignon:

Weight: Full bodied – big – substantial. And deeply colored. If you’re not sure what I mean by weight, you might compare it to the way milk feels on your palate: Light bodied = skim milk; Medium bodied = whole milk; Full-bodied = cream.

Flavor profile: Black fruit such as blackberry, black cherry, black currant; it may show earth, cedar, bell pepper, green olive or any number of other descriptors, depending, again, on where it’s grown and how the wine is made. When the winemaker chooses new barrels for aging the wood may add vanilla, spice, smoke, grilled bread, mocha, nutty character or a sense of toastiness.

Pucker factor (Tannin): Very noticeable. Tannin runs around your mouth seeking out protein and then clings to it. That’s what accounts for the drying, gripping sensation. Cab has thick skins and the skins are the source of the color and most of the tannin. 

If you sometimes think you’re drinking Merlot and it turns out to be a Cab – or vice versa – there’s a good reason. These grapes are similar. Take Cabernet back a notch and it begins to look more like Merlot.

Weight: Medium to full bodied

Flavor profile: Merlot often shows red fruit intermingled with black: Currant, black cherry, plum, violet, herb-like, earthy; Oak will add some of the woody characteristics described for the Cab.

Pucker factor: Usually noticeable, but softer than Cab. Merlot can leave a fleshy impression where Cabernet comes off as more structured. Continue reading


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Grape of the Week: Cabernet Sauvignon


I hope you like this idea. I’ll do a post on a different variety every week, which means after awhile we’ll be looking at some varieties that aren’t so familiar – could be a lot of fun!

I want to start with the undisputed King of Grapes here in Napa Valley – Cabernet Sauvignon. Here goes:

Cabernet Sauvignon – AKA: Cabernet, Cab Sav, Cab, Petite Cabernet, Vidure, Petite-Vidure, Bouche, Petite-Bouche, Bouchet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Rouge, Burdeos Tintos (these last several arcane synonyms courtesy of the UC Davis website.)

Like all the other varieties, this grape appears in many guises, depending upon where it’s grown and the winemaking techniques employed. But, overall, you can expect this grape to produce a substantial, deeply colored red wine that’s noticeably tannic and very rich in black fruit flavors: blackberry, black cherry, black currant; plus it may show earth, cedar, bell pepper, green olive or any number of other descriptors, depending, again, on where it’s grown and how the wine is made. When the winemaker chooses new barrels for aging the wood may add vanilla, spice, smoke, grilled bread, mocha, nutty character or a sense of  toastiness (see more on this in “Notes from the Tasting,” below). And since tannin comes from the grape skins, and the Cabernet grape has thick skin, you’ll come to expect firm tannins from your Cab, which can help make it age worthy, in varying degrees. Continue reading

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The Second Crop is for the Birds


Walking through the vineyard with a friend, she noticed lots of very small clusters left on the vine, mixed in with the leafy growth. She wondered why they left those clusters behind during the harvest.

Those little clusters are a special treat for the birds this time of year. The regular, main crop, is found very close to what looks like the old part of the vine in most vineyards. The crop forms on new growth, but near the old growth, if that makes sense. the way many vineyards are trained these days, as bi-lateral cordons with vertical shoot positioning, you see the main crop hanging kind of like a chorus line, along the lowest trellis wire. The second crop is further up those vertical shoots, hanging off of the lateral shoots rather than on the main shoot. 

In any case, what I told her is that the very small “second crop” ripens significantly later that the main crop, so if the pickers were to go after it, it would throw the wine out of balance. There would be unexpected tart flavors and, for reds, harsh tannins.

The second crop is so small that it’s not usually worth the bother. It could be that a home winemaker will ask for permission to harvest the second crop for his wine – if it ever actually ripens, that is. The grapes tasted nice and sweet, but not sweet enough. And the weather is cool, now, with daylight hours getting shorter by the day. So, we enjoyed a few grapes. Other than that, the second crop is for the birds!

And, speaking of birds, happy Turkey Day! Cheers!

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Today’s Wine Word: Veraison


Aren’t the purty? There’s something so sweet and lovely about the clusters as they begin to blush and change color. By the time they’re finished they’ll be almost black in color. 

And, the color change is such a significant event that there’s a name for it – French, of course 😉 – veraison. 

Veraison signals that the shoots have stopped growing and that the vine’s energy has shifted into fruit ripening. It’s a kind of code language to the vineyard manager and the cellar master to get it together for crush because the grapes will be pounding on the door before long. 

Veraison is usually complete within about ten days, if the weather’s good. Shortly after, the vineyard manager will get a baseline sugar reading. Folks who are called field samplers are hired to walk the vine rows, collecting grape samples. Because most vineyards are harvested only once, they get specific instructions from the vineyard manager because the sample needs to represent the section of vineyard as a whole. The winemaker wants an average reading of sugar, acid and pH. Continue reading

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Today’s Wine Word: Vitis Vinifera


Question from Alex: What’s the difference between the grapes we eat and the grapes that make wine? Can you eat wine grapes?

Reply: Hi, Alex. Thanks for writing! As your question implies, wine grapes aren’t the same as the ones we buy at the grocery store. But, you can certainly eat wine grapes. If you visit a wine-growing region during harvest tasting the grapes is a must – they’re very sweet and delicious. The grapes we purchase at the produce counter are usually between 15 and 20% sugar. Grapes for wine (except sparkling wine) are harvested at between 20 and 30% sugar, most often between 21 and 28% – very, very sweet!

All grapes fall into the genus “Vitis”. Most of our favorite table grapes, like Flame Seedless or Concord, the species is lubrusca. So, they’re classified as Vitis lubrusca. If you like Muscadine grapes or wine, or Scuppernong, they’re categorized as Vitis rotundifolia. You can make wine from table grapes – Concord wines are out there – but we, as consumers, just don’t seem to like them very much. We seem to have a taste for wine that’s made from Vitis vinifera – wine grapes in every day parlance. Continue reading

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What Makes Napa Valley Special?


Thanks to the handful of readers who wrote back about yesterday’s post on the high price of Napa Valley wine. It was quite natural for them to wonder what makes this region special enough to justify the price. 

As you recall, the simple answer is supply and demand. So, why are Napa Valley grapes in such high demand? What makes the valley so special?

The short answer for that is “pure luck.” And, pure luck translates into a great combination of soil and climate for wine grapes. The growing conditions here are so favorable for growing wine grapes that a grower could almost do a sloppy job of farming and still get pretty good results.

But, the thing is that most growers and winemakers here aren’t content with “pretty good.” They want to grow/make wonderful wine! So, the third, key, element is people: People who are fanatical about what they do. Any winemaker will tell you that if the vineyard grows superlative fruit, she’s 90% of the way home. Her job is to try not to mess it up.

The fact that the valley is small and produces only 4% of California’s wine adds to our “luck” when it comes to demand.

Continue reading

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