This is one of the most exciting times of year as a winemaker. As we anxiously await grapes to ripen and harvest to begin, our days are filled with vineyard visits to check on grape
maturity. What exactly does that mean, grape maturity? For black grapes, at this point the grapes have gone through veraison, or changed color. Right now, the sugar content of the grapes is increasing, while the acidity level is decreasing. Meanwhile, flavors are developing as well as tannins. As all of these things are happening simultaneously, the grapes are maturing or getting closer to when we feel they are ready for harvest.
If you haven't had the opportunity to try maturing wine grapes - which I encourage you to do - you'll find a punch in the mouth of acid, like biting into a lemon, followed by a sugar rush of grapey flavors. It's a pretty intense experience. But once your mouth adjusts to the shock, you start to notice underlying flavors that'll be the wine - grape, of course, but in Cabernet, especially Tom's Wautoma Springs Cabernet, I find big brawny notes followed by beautiful flora and pretty elements.
I rely on chemical analysis of the sugar and acid content as well as simply tasting a whole lot of grapes while walking the vineyard. When I first start tasting the grapes for ripeness, there is a noticeable difference between the West side of the canopy and the East side – the West side tends to ripen faster as that is the side exposed to the heat of the afternoon sun, whereas the East side will have higher acidity and less flavor development at first due to the cooler early morning sun exposure. Once we can no longer taste a difference between the two sides of the canopy, the flavors have developed, and the chemistry is in balance, then it is time to harvest the grapes and get them to the winery.
Things progress quickly in a vineyard this time of year. It's exciting to see and taste dramatic differences in just one week. I think one of the things I enjoy most is simply walking through the vineyard as I grab grape samples. I leave my phone in the car and can hear nothing but the crunch of my boots on the dry cover crop as I walk the vineyard rows. It is the calm before the storm. It is the chance to take one last look at your crop and dream about the wine that it is going to become. It is a hopeful, exciting, peaceful, delicious time of year.
And then I head back to my car to guzzle a gallon of water while also using it as a mouth wash because, man, grape sampling is very hard the enamel of your teeth. Next time you enjoy a glass of wine, thank the folks making the wine, and also thank their dentists.