Eric Clapton sang, “After midnight, we’re gonna let it all hang down”, when he was speaking of his favorite time for a party. For growers of the wine grape, however, “after midnight” is their favorite time for a harvest. Have you ever wondered why grape harvesting so often takes place at night?
Growing wine grapes is not for the faint of heart! So much goes into producing a good crop, but it all comes down to choosing the ideal moment to harvest, and then bringing in the crop in the best possible way. Once the grapes are safely on the truck, the vineyard manager’s job is complete and all the pressure shifts to the winemaker. But getting the grapes on the truck has more nuance than you might expect.
Once the decision is made, should the harvest begin immediately? In many cases, the harvest is put off until the wee hours of the morning. Night harvesting began back in the 70’s, with California vineyards now harvesting about 2/3 of their grapes at night. That’s a lot of lost sleep, but for good reason!
Without question, harvesting at night, in cooler temperatures, is popular with the pickers. Instead of sweltering under a punishing sun and using all sorts of sunburn protections, they bundle up a bit for the night chill. Chilly grapes are firmer grapes, so there’s less hassle from the winemaker about bruising the fruit while picking.The lower temperatures also mean that bees and snakes, typical vineyard threats, are sound asleep and not plotting to attack the pickers.
At night the sugar levels in the grapes are stable, and the acid levels are better. Picking grapes when they’re cool reduces the energy needed to cool them before they can be pressed or fermented. Many winemakers include a step in their process called “cold soaking”, where grapes are cooled to below 55 degrees for several days before fermentation. Cooler grapes from night-time picking makes cold soaking faster and less expensive. Cooler grapes also give the winemaker a bit more time to prepare everything for the madness of the crush before spoilage rears its ugly head.
So the next time you are driving past a vineyard during harvest and see some bright lights in the distance, be assured that it is a picking crew, not an extraterrestrial invasion. Cheers to the next vintage!
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