When are grapes at their peak for wine?

chardonnay grapes MT File photo

Some use a scientific approach. Others go by instinct. Whichever way you shake it — in this case, the grape vine — the process that goes into determining when a grape is at its peak and ready for wine is an art all its own.

Mark Wisnovsky, president of Valley View Winery, prefers to get his hands dirty in determining when to harvest.

"More and more people that have been doing this for a long time tend to use less scientific methods and go more on instinct," says Wisnovsky, whose family started the Applegate Valley-based vineyard in 1972. "Looking at it and seeing how grapes develop into wine ... you just get a feel for it."

One of the tests in the scientific approach includes taking random sugar samples — also known as testing the Brix, referring to a hydrometer scale — from different areas of the vineyard. Depending on the grape, the harvest usually occurs when the level of ripeness determined during the testing of the Brix is reached.

Most winemakers, however, prefer diving into the process themselves rather than using scientific testing.

Chewing on the skins, tasting the actual grape and observing the uniformity of the color are the most humanly proven methods in determining harvest readiness.

Wisnovsky has developed a confidence in such a skill over time.

"I look at the vineyard," Wisnovsky says, "and remember the history of the vine. I want to look at the whole picture, like how much water — both natural and added — the grape has taken. You want to look at the development of the seed and how crunchy they are, and the skin flavor of the grape and, obviously, the flavor of the grape itself."

The harvest season for local vineyards generally starts in the third or fourth week of September, says Wisnovsky, and really hits its stride toward the beginning of October.

White wine grapes usually mature faster than red wine grapes and vineyards that harvest earlier tend to get higher levels of acidity.

This season, the weather has been very kind to local winemakers.

"This year has been great," says Wisnovsky. "We'll be able to pick things exactly when we want and we'll be able to treat each grape with a lot more time."

The warm, dry Southern Oregon climate allows for a number of varietals that vineyards in the northern portion of the state can't develop.

Valley View specializes in Viognier, a white wine that flourishes in the local climate.

"That is becoming our signature white wine," says Wisnovsky. "It is a bit trickier to determine optimum picking time. One of the characteristics is its aroma and tropical floral character."

Each season is different, however, because of weather variations. A particularly cold or wet season can damage or set back the harvest time of a fickle grape.

"It is farming at its root," says Wisnovsky. "That's why, to me, one of the most important things is to get out in the vineyard and get a feel of what's going on."

Reach reporter Kevin Goff at 776-4483, or e-mail kgoff@mailtribune.com

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