Gone Pickin’

There’s an old saying in wine that Mother Nature always gets the last word. Winegrowers drop fruit, pull leaves and irrigate all season long, but it’s the rain and sunshine in the run-up to the fall harvest that makes a vintage one to remember—or, sadly, to forget. Growers watch and wait, then pick like mad when they think the time is right. The first grapes in are pinot noir and chardonnay for sparkling wines, followed by whites, then reds. Here on Long Island, vineyards need as many cumulative sunshine hours as possible to get important reds like merlot and cabernet franc ripe. Cloudy skies are not great and too much rain brings on nasty mildews and dilutes the juice.

And it’s not a done deal until the grapes are on the press pad. That’s why when you ask an experienced grower, “Is this going to be a good year?” you don’t get an answer, just a hard stare.

Take October 2005: the grapes were coming along beautifully. Suddenly it rained 17 inches in 8 days. Vineyards were literally submerged, grapes swelled and split, mold attacked. Much of the harvest was ruined and a vineyard manager even lost his job in the fallout.

But 2014 was exceptional. The fall weather was clear and dry. Not only did fruit get wonderfully ripe, it was a bumper crop (unusually large). Wine producers happily struggled to find room in the cellar for so many tons of grapes. The first 2014 whites are on the shelves now; the reds are still in barrels for release next year. I have tasted quite a few of these wines, and they have depth, structure, vibrant flavors; everything serious wine-drinkers want from a good vintage.

But even good weather doesn’t make good wine, it still comes down to timing. California sunshine equals consistently ripe grapes, but over-ripe flavors make wines taste stewed, like raisins. Also, high sugars create high alcohol, which tastes hot. Conversely, unripe fruit yields a low-alcohol wine, and immature flavor components that create an unpleasant vegetal taste. On Long Island, wine producers believe that our cool-climate reds, with lower alcohol and a more “refined” flavor profile, are more balanced and interesting, and they pick accordingly.

At time of printing (early September), this year’s harvest is still too early to interpret. A cold winter, chilly spring and unpredictable spate of August hail caused some damage and will reduce yields. But the warm, dry summer is looking to creep into fall. Nonetheless vintners are diligently but hastily picking, weighing, testing and tasting right now. When it’s over the response, as it has been for thou- sands of years, is to celebrate the bounty nature has given or lament what might have been. Either way, the wine will flow in rejoice of another harvest season past.