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Gathering the grapes

Plenty of variables for winemakers to consider before deciding to harvest

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IT'S just about harvest time in the wine world north of the equator -- a time when winemakers start wringing their hands, wondering whether today should be the day grapes are picked. It's not as simple as just marking a day on the calendar -- rather, it's a complex process involving the day-to-day monitoring of grapes, weather forecasts and more.

To get the best grapes to their peak at this time of the year, carefully trellised vines have been monitored to ensure enough wind is getting through the vineyard to prevent mildew, while leaves have been managed for just the right amount of fruit exposure to the sun. Then there's the water issue -- to irrigate or not to irrigate? It all depends on whether there's an underground water source, how hot the region is, etc.

Certain grapes ripen earlier than others, meaning not all the fruit can be picked at once. Not only that, grapes on one side of a vine will often ripen quicker than those on the other side depending on which direction the row of vines runs relative to the sun in the sky. Plus certain grape varieties work best with particular soil types -- a vineyard could have three or four areas growing Pinot Noir, for example, and these plots might not ripen at the same time.

Meanwhile, throughout the growing season viticulturalists/winemakers have been pulling bunches of grapes from the vine and tossing them on the ground. Grapes produce fruit with more intensity of flavour if there are fewer bunches on a vine.

Don't forget about the birds and other grape-chomping pests to keep at bay. From scarecrows to nets to bird scarers that replicate the sound of a gun, all types of deterrents are used to keep birds and other critters from eating the increasingly ripe fruit.

Viticulturalists and winemakers spend late summer measuring the sugar and acidity in random samples of grapes. And while they run the fruit through tests in a lab for pH balance, etc., you'll also often find these folks standing in the vineyard munching on the fruit -- a lot depends on taste and gut feeling.

If you're a winemaker and your gut feeling says "pick the grapes," you've got to move. How things work vary to an extent on the size and scope of the winery. The big guys commonly fire up numerous tractors and harvest grapes using machines driven through the vineyard. Machine-harvesting is less discriminating about the quality of fruit being yanked from the vines, but is also far quicker and cost-effective than hand-picking. Smaller wineries and those whose landscape doesn't allow for machine-harvesting employ an army of pickers to do the job by hand.

All this happens before the grapes even get back to the winery -- an equally complex topic we'll save for next week.



(Okanagan valley, B.C. -- $23.49, Liquor Marts and beyond)

A blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc, the Steller's Jay is a great example of consistent high quality in Canadian bubbly. Bread dough, red apple, lemon peel and pear aromas are quite Champagne-esque on the nose -- not surprisingly, this bubbly is made using the same method as they do in the famous French region. It's medium-bodied, with bright red apple and lemon zest notes as well as toasted nuts and that doughy note, with crisp, lively bubbles. It's on par with entry-level French Champagne, and at half the price. ****



(Southeastern Australia -- $12.49, Liquor Marts and beyond)

This wine is made in huge quantities -- it's fair to assume there's no hand-harvesting involved here. Green apple, lime juice, a hint of chalkiness and light herbal aromas are pretty decidedly Sauvignon Blanc. Aged in stainless steel tanks, the crisp citrus and green apple flavours are fresh and lively, with just a hint of honey and fresh flowers. It's 11.5 per cent alcohol, meaning there's a touch of sweetness here. A late-season patio sipper. **1/2



(Colchagua Valley, Chile -- $12.89, Liquor Marts and beyond)

This red is a blend of 95 per cent Syrah and five per cent Viognier; when blended with Syrah, Viognier (a white grape) often makes the colour of a wine darker and more intense. On the nose, there's plenty of brambly blackberry, black cherry and spice as well as a hint of perfume and strawberry jam. It's a dense, juicy, full-bodied red that packs the red berries with dark chocolate and vanilla (courtesy of 10 months in oak barrels) as well as light, grippy tannin. Great value. ***1/2 Twitter: @bensigurdson

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 14, 2013 D14

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