Behind the Wine: It's Harvest Season in Oregon

By: Cameron Curtis
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October is an exciting month in the agriculture world, as peaches and corn give way to apples and pumpkins, prime for the picking. And in certain vine-filled valleys, it's a lush time, indeed: the grape harvest. On a recent visit to Willamette Valley — Oregon's up-and-coming wine region known for its bold Pinot Noirs and crisp Chardonnays — we learned that an unusually warm summer had sped up the growing and ripening process, resulting in an earlier harvest. Lucky for us, that meant we were able to get up close and personal with those big, juicy grapes.

To learn all about the harvest process — and see how varying microclimates within a 10-mile radius can yield entirely different grapes — we visited a few different wineries. We checked in with Winemaker Melissa Burr from Stoller Family Estate as she sampled some of the new juices coming off of the vines, and toured  Sokol Blosser and  Penner-Ash wineries to see how their harvests were progressing.

1. Evaluating the Grapes

The first step in the grape-harvesting process is determining when the grapes are actually ready to be picked. The answer, much like in wine-drinking, is taste. The flavor of the freshly pressed juice determines if the grapes are ready or if they need a bit more time on the vine. We visited Melissa's lab while touring Stoller, where beakers of juice from the different grape plots (Tempranillo, Syrah and Riesling) awaited her sampling. "It's interesting how juice goes from just sweet, to sweet with lots of flavor, over the course of just a few days." Melissa noted.

2. Picking & Sorting

Once the juice hits that flavorful sweet spot, the grapes are plucked by hand from the vineyard and sorted for quality. This being such an abundant year, there were very few grapes to discard.

3. Developing a Strategy

Melissa took us through her "war room," which tracks each plot on the vineyard and each fermentation tank to determine the exact balance for the arriving grapes.

4. De-Stemming & Crushing

Grapes are transported to a de-stemmer and crusher where the leaves and stems are separated and the grapes are crushed.

5. The Science of Fermentation

Red wines are fermented with the grapes' skins on, which is why they have that great color; white wines are separated from the skins before being fermented. At Penner-Ash, owner Ron Penner-Ash took us through his fermentation room, composed mainly of stainless steel tanks. He uses a few oak fermenters for their top-quality red wines, which impart a bit more flavor and character to the final product. Sometimes cultured yeasts are added to give the winemaker control over the fermentation process, but many fermentations are still carried out with yeasts that are naturally present in the vineyard or winery.

6. Barrel Fermentation

Once fermentation is completed, the wine is moved to barrels to complete the process. At Sokol Blosser, where they are famous for their Pinot Noir, fermentation is done in small lots, with 16 months in French oak. A Chardonnay at nearby Domaine Drouhin winery, Arthur, is half fermented in French oak barrels, and half fermented and aged in stainless steel. Winemakers taste the wine at different intervals, topping off each barrel to compensate for evaporation as needed so that no oxygen sneaks in.

7. Aging...and Drinking!

Once the wine is fully aged, it's bottled and ready for drinking or cellaring and, of course, for pairing with cheese.

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