Monolithos Wine Dimensions: August 2016
The harvest season has finally arrived. Traditionally, August marks the beginning of the harvest season. Picking the international grape varieties starts early in August, but picking most of the indigenous varieties in Pachna takes place in September.
This is the bustling time of year when everyone in the village must give a helping hand. The local grape growers are up before sunrise to ensure grapes are picked at their prime sugar levels and at cooler temperatures. Winery teams eagerly await bins of perfectly ripe fruit. Simply entering the village during harvest season will be an experience to remember. Watch as trucks drive by, overflowing with grapes, and smile as they spill onto the road at every bump. The harvest period makes its mark on the wine-growing landscape. In fact, the winding routes down the hillsides of Pachna village are busy with cars carrying crates of grapes to the presses, while an army of humans moves through the vines. The last weeks of summer are a time when the year’s hard work pays off in the most beautiful way.
As several archaeological discoveries have revealed, wine has been an important part of Cypriot culture for over 6,000 years. Vine-growing and winemaking has continued unabated throughout the ages. In Greek mythology, Dionysus was the god of the grape harvest, winemaking and wine, of ritual madness and religious ecstasy. Today, what is left of the legend is the clear perception that winemaking is not simply a process through which men create a product, wine. Winemaking is an art, a philosophy, deeply rooted in our tradition and culture.
Harvest time is the crucial phase of an entire year’s work. The grapes have been exposed to various threats, including heat, rain, hail and frost which can damage them and trigger various vine diseases. So the instant grapes are picked is a magic-filled time, full of expectation, hope and excitement, because a good wine can only be obtained from perfect grapes which are the fruits of a year’s hard work. In spite of the common perception of a wonderful time in the vineyard, grape harvesting is one of the toughest and most strenuous activities.
The exact timing of the harvest depends on how ripe the grapes are. This varies from year to year and is influenced by several factors such as the vineyard location and climate conditions, as well as on the variety of grapes. When to harvest the grapes is probably the most important and challenging decision for grape producers, due to the difficulty of assessing grape maturity in the vineyard. Traditionally, farmers use their sight, touch, smell and taste to assess development of flavour compounds found in grapes. A ripe grape is plump and thickly juicy. It is a balance between sweet and tart. Each variety develops distinctive tastes that we call varietal flavour. A fully ripe grape develops its varietal flavour more fully. Tastes or smells of vinegar or chemicals are flaws. In order to make high quality wines, a winemaker needs fully ripe and fault-free grapes. He or she tastes the grape and tries to imagine what the final result will be. In order to ensure the ripeness of the grapes, winemakers also employ simple test results by measuring the sugar, acid and tannin levels. In addition, winemakers may also decide to remove grapes from the vines, taking into consideration the style of wine they wish to produce.
It’s good to use your senses, but it’s also important to measure. The most common technique used in assessing the ripeness of grapes is to measure their sugar levels with a refractometer. This portable instrument allows the winemaker to assess the ripeness of fruit by measuring Brix in the vineyard. Grapes are mostly water and sugar which will eventually ferment. Brix is a term that the brewing industry uses to measure the sugar content of grapes. Brix levels help to estimate the alcohol level of the wine. Like temperature, Brix is measured in degrees.
Another useful test is the pH meter which is a measure of free hydrogen ions. As grapes ripen and the sugar rises, the pH will rise too whilst total acidity decreases. Finding the right sugar-acid balance is very important for making a good wine. Every time we measure Brix, we should also measure acid levels. In a way they are opposites – as the Brix goes up, the acid levels go down.
The yearly dilemma is whether to delay harvest until the desired quality parameters are reached because – once picked – grapes do not improve in flavour, colour or sugar content. There is no universal agreement by winemakers on the best time to pick. Some may choose to pick earlier, others later, depending on their choice of a particular wine style. If they want higher acidity and lower alcohol, grapes must be picked early. Waiting, however, may yield greater complexity and higher alcohol, and grapes may still retain acidity if the weather is cool.
Consequently, it is impossible to accurately predict exact harvest dates at the beginning of the season, since too many variables influence the rate of fruit ripening. However, with experience and good record-keeping, it is possible to make reasonably accurate projections as the season progresses. Each year, winemakers keep notes on the numbers, the dates each vineyard is harvested, the appearance and taste at the time of harvest, and even the weather during the growing season. Over time, a better idea is obtained of what numbers and characteristics are needed for making sure that harvesting the grapes at the optimal time would result in the production of high-quality wines.
In the last few decades new analytical techniques are being developed that should provide great assistance in future assessment of optimal maturity. However, it is unlikely that any single index of maturity will be discovered that can be indiscriminately applied to all growing conditions and to all varietals. Historical experience with specific vineyards and growing regions will continue to be a critical factor in determining the optimal maturity of the fruit. Factors such as complexity, varietal clarity, alcohol and acidity are subject to weather and soil changes as well as human practices.
When fully ripe, the optimum sugar level of certain grape varieties is low, and a winemaker may choose to increase the alcohol level by the addition of sugar (chaptalization). In certain regions, where the weather in terms of average temperature, sunshine, rainfall and humidity varies substantially from year to year, chaptalization is exercised in order to ensure that the required level of alcohol is reached. However, it is well known that the addition of sugar produces wines of a lower quality and price. Having stated that, one has to also acknowledge that the most common and legally allowed chaptalization is that of Champagne.
Once the prime time for a grape harvest has been established, the farmer has to decide on the best harvesting method for his grapes, taking into consideration that the separation of grapes from the vine marks the beginning of the race to the winery as temperature and exposure to oxygen can rapidly deteriorate quality. Generally speaking, there are two methods of removing the fruit from the vines – hand picking and machine harvesting.
There are several reasons we might choose to hand harvest. Some varietals don’t shake off the stems easily, so the plants would have to be beaten senseless in order to get the grapes off. Aside from being hard on the plants and the trellis, it is also potentially bad for the wine. Handpicking offers a more gentle treatment preventing oxygen exposure if bunches are collected without breaking many of the skins open, however it does take a lot longer. The main reason this method is preferred is because it preserves the integrity of the fruit which can eventually lead to a better wine.
Machines are less expensive than manpower and this method is widely used in the New World. Machine harvesting fruit substantially brings down the cost of getting the grapes from the vineyard to the winery. The exact saving depends on a number of factors, but 60%-70% savings are a pretty average result. However, does this practice lower the quality of the grapes and the finished wine? The purist would say yes (as most of the great Old World vineyards are harvested by hand), but there are those who think otherwise.
Machine harvesters essentially remove the fruit from the vine by either slapping it using paddles or by shaking the vine. The kinetic energy imparted by the harvester causes the grapes to fly off the bunches and be caught by the machine as it passes down the row. Machine harvesting is rather “rough” in that it causes a fair amount of juicing of the grapes and may also collect other material such as leaves, shoots, and the odd lizard etc., collectively known as MOG (material other than grape). It is a fact that mechanical harvesting is much quicker, but it is not as gentle. In some places, such as the steep slopes of the mountainous regions of Cyprus – including Pachna – mechanical harvesting is not an option.
Every year at Monolithos Winery, we invite the most fun loving, hardworking and enthusiastic friends to join our harvest team for a morning of grape picking, socialising and drinking! The pressure is on during harvest time as fruit ripens on the vine and there is no time to waste. These weeks could be the most illuminating to visit the wine growing villages, offering the chance to peak behind the scenes and get your hands dirty in this annual ritual.
Harvesting is the first step grapes take on their journey to the bottle of delicious wine. It is also the busiest time of year for wineries. Enjoying a glass of wine is indeed one of life’s greatest pleasures, but taking part in the wine-making process the good old-fashioned way is no less fun. At least, that’s what we aim at here at Monolithos after spending a day of traditional wine harvesting, eating and – of course – wine tasting as well!
Monolithos Winery offers friends and visitors the opportunity to visit its vineyards and join the harvesting, getting to recognise indigenous grapes and sampling local varieties. Simply enjoying a glass of wine on its own is a pleasure in itself, however visits to the local cheese (halloumi) makers can also be arranged – a cheese and wine event, Cyprus style!
It is a cliché among winemakers that “wine is made in the vineyard”. This means that good quality wine can be made from only good quality fruit, and that what goes on in the vineyard is crucial to wine quality. Yet, just as the quality of the grapes results from scores of decisions related to grape variety, vineyard site, and cultivation practices, so does the winemaker make scores of decisions that affect the quality and character of the finished wine. It takes an able winemaker to make high-quality wine from even the best quality grapes.
Of course, the best wine is undoubtedly that which is most pleasant to he or she who drinks it.