For winemakers around the world, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, the days of late September and into October bring an end to a summer spent reading countless weather forecasts and looking to the sky for salvation or ruin.
Everywhere you go, someone has pinned his or her hopes on the fertile fragility of grapevines, the grape harvest either still is underway or about to end.
All day every day you can watch teams of pickers working their way up and down the rows of vines and tractors pulling wagons carrying freshly harvested grapes from vineyard to winery.
The air is redolent with the prickly perfume of fermenting grape juice, to say nothing of the fruit flies swarming in lusty clouds of short-lived exuberance.
It’s the same whether you’re in the Grand Valley, the North Fork Valley or the Valdichiana of southern Tuscany, where Toscana rubs shoulders with Umbria across Lago Trasimeno, Italy’s fourth-largest lake.
It’s curious to see a tractor pulling an open, aluminum-sided trailer piled high with fresh-picked Sangiovese grapes and weaving its way through the narrow, cobbled streets thronged with waves of tourists staring down at the GPS app on their cellphones.
Few of the visitors realize, or perhaps even care, that those trailers carry the very reason so many of them are here to sample, drink and purchase the famed wine: Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.
Rain came to this part of Tuscany the last weekend of September and again a week later, enough to chase the workers out of the vineyards but not enough to affect the crop, said winemaker Susanna Crociani of Cantina Crociani in Montepulciano.
“We had to leave the fields for few days last week, but we’ll get back this weekend,” she said mid-week. “We had a very good spring and the summer was hot but not too hot, like they had in France. It’s going well, and so far looks good. We had a good spring, lots of moisture, and that gave us a good start.
“It’s early in the harvest but things look really good,” she said, perhaps a bit cautiously.
Overall, it has been predicted that wine production across Tuscany may be down 10–15% (primarily because Chianti reportedly is cutting its production because of lagging sales in two major markets, the United States and Germany), but quality remains high.
Other problems, more nature than nurture, were reported across Europe.
France in particular was hard-hit this summer by record-setting heat as winemakers continue to learn how to deal with climate change. In the normally cool northern reaches of Alsace, some producers report crops down 30% to 40% from last year, and Burgundy reported the highest temperatures recorded in nearly 700 years.
Heat, plus the usual suspects of spring frosts, hail and wildfires signal the country’s overall output is estimated to fall 12%, according to that country’s agriculture minister.
Parts of the Piedmont Region in northern Italy, home to the revered Barolo wines, were hit by a late-summer hailstorm that destroyed up to 20% of the crop in places while other reaches were untouched.
Closer to home, last winter generally was kind to Grand Valley grapes and, while the spring was cooler than normal, it also brought plenty of snow to the high country for summer crops.
The weather delayed the growing cycle a couple of weeks, but most of that was made up during the heat of midsummer.
“We are so pleased with this year,” said Nancy Janes at Whitewater Hill Vineyards on Orchard Mesa. “We ran a bit behind most of the summer due to the cool spring, but August and early September stayed warm, so we caught up and are pretty much back to normal for ripening time.”
I talked to Janes (via email) in mid-September and she said the cooler weather had begun to slow the harvest as grapes were slow to ripen.
Some growers were hoping to let their grapes hang a few more weeks to reach optimum ripeness, but once the frost hit earlier this month across western Colorado, grape growers had no choice but to finish picking.
Once the vines lose their leaves, the growth cycle stops.
Still, the cool, wet spring, which restored needed soil moisture, followed by plenty of hot, growth-stimulating days in July and August, brought the crop to maturity before the frost.
“We think it will be a wonderful quality year,” said Janes, whose optimism often is reflected in her delightful wines.
On such comments an entire vintage can become one for the ages, eh?