Wine Grape Harvesting – When and How

Nov 7, 2021 | Farming Practices

In a nutshell harvest looks something like the following although it is my highly simplified version:

  • Starting in August sometime, we begin brix sampling, which means we go through specific blocks of grapes to assess their sugar level. For example, we like to pick our Zinfandel at around 24 brix. So, we need to keep checking where it is. Usually, the grapes go up about 1 degree brix per week.
  • Once we think the flavor, acid, and brix is where we want it, we call the pick date.
  • When the grapes get delivered to the winery we then sort, sort, sort. We don’t like any raisins or any under ripe fruit either.
  • Then the fruit gets destemmed and put into tanks where it ferments and then we press it and start the aging process in French oak barrels.

The Nalle winemaking style follows traditional vigneron techniques: low yields in the vineyard, hand picking and sorting, gentler macerations, and small fermentations. Aged exclusively in French oak (Alain Fouquet, Demptos, Francois Freres) 25% new, for 11 months.

When are grapes ready to harvest?

The 2021 harvest kicked off at Nalle Winery on September 1 when we picked the Bernier-Sibary field blend Zin. We tend to pick on the early side to keep alcohol levels down and retain bright acidity in the wines. Pick dates are super important when it comes to winemaking. We are looking for the right sugar levels, the right acid levels, but also flavor development and ripeness. It’s not just numbers from the lab that we rely on, it’s over 35 years of making wine from the same blocks and knowing right when the flavors start to get that perfect profile. We are usually some of the earliest people to start picking Zinfandel for red wine production. This is because we don’t make big jammy wines with high alcohol. It’s just the opposite, we make moderate alcohol, delicate and smooth wines with finely integrated oak and zinberry characteristics true to place. We like to call our style ‘old-school’ California: moderate in alcohol, bright acidity, smooth tannins, dry and flavorfully round in texture.



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How do you sort grapes?

Part of the secret to getting moderate alcohol wines is that we sort, sort, sort. We drop fruit in the vineyard, we sort out bunches we don’t want in the field when we are picking, and we sort the grapes as soon as they hit the crush pad. Zinfandel is a varietal for which it is hard to call a pick date because the bunches on the vines ripen unevenly, and that creates a challenge in judging the block as a whole. So, there will be underripe green bunches on vines and then raisining bunches. We follow the goldilocks rule and like it just right- not green and not raisining or jammy. We look at each grape, taste, and hand sort everything ourselves- what we are looking for is something a machine can’t tell you. It takes human eyes and hands.

How long does harvest season last?

Because we only make about 2500 cases and we as a family make it ourselves, we are usually done with harvest come mid-October. Harvest is hard but it is an energized time of year. When we talk to our kids and they ask about holidays or big events coming up it always goes in this order: HARVEST, Halloween, thanksgiving, Christmas. It’s up there in big ‘events’ coming up. The reality is that we start getting ready for harvest with the very first decision we make in the winter to prune. Very early on we start thinking about crop load, crop quality, and canopy management. We seed cover crop and prep for the growing season well in advance. Harvest is a culmination of everything we do during the growing season.

About The Author

April earned her Masters of Viticulture from the University of Adelaide in Australia. Today she enjoys tending the Nalle estate old vine vineyards with love and sustainabile practices. Click here to learn more about April and the Nalle crew.