13 Things To Know About The 2013 Wine Harvest Around The World

For much of the winemaking world, this year's grape harvest has either just begun or just ended. Wineries big and small – in the northern hemisphere, at least – have hired their grape pickers, oiled their grape-picking machines and are well on their way to completing the 2013 crush. So, what's the early word on this year's vintage? It was a doozy. But, hey, it always is. Here is our humble harvest report, in 13 easy parts.

1. Winemakers like to say they pick their grapes at peak ripeness. But what exactly that peak is and how you measure it varies. Traditionally, ripeness has been measured in terms of sugar and acidity. Grape growers still taste their grapes to judge their readiness. But nowadays, more advanced tools are available. A refractometer measures the Brix or sugar content of grapes. Other winemakers prefer to focus on phenolics or tannins, which must be measured by tasting the grape, seeds included.

2. France expected its worst harvest in decades. Several storms wiped out huge swaths of vines in Bordeaux and Burgundy and thus a number of producers started the harvest late. In the south, many reported a cold and wet spring, which led to late flowering of the vines. This means that the ripening of the grapes was delayed. But the harvest was saved by a dry, warm summer. Yields are still on the low end this year, but many winemakers say their grapes are looking great.

3. The rest of Europe was also hit by storms. The weather was ugly, with hail, wind and rain pelting the continent. This translates into low yields, and can mean poor quality grapes. So, if your favorite winemaker ends up making less or no wine this year because of it, next year you'll either have to pay more for the wine or drink something else. Poor you!

4. In parts of Germany, the U.S. and Canada, where they make ice wine, grapes can be harvested as late as January.

5. Certain regions in Italy and Spain ended up with good yields and healthy grapes. They were just picked late – up to two weeks.

6. The Southern hemisphere is long done with its harvest. South Africa, South America, Australia and New Zealand typically pick grapes between between February and April.

7. Australia also suffered bad weather. But instead of cold and rain, here the problem was heat. Several heat waves resulted in low yields. On the other hand, the wines are already showing a high concentration.

8. South Africa had great weather this year. All around, a superb harvest.

9. South America had a long, cool summer. Is this a good thing? Why, yes! Instead of high-alcohol, heavy wines, this can result in fresh, vibrant and elegant wines.

10. What's happening here at home? One of the hottest summers on record meant that Washington state picked its grapes early. California also had an early harvest, especially in the state's warmest areas – some winemakers report up to three weeks. A short season means smaller, more concentrated grapes. So, expect that concentration to come through in the wines.

11. But picking the grapes is just the beginning. The grapes must be sorted, the bad and unripe or overripe ones discarded. Then, they might be de-stemmed or not: some winemakers prefer to work with whole clusters of grapes. White wines get pressed, their juices collected, while reds are often fermented on their skins. Fermentation takes place either naturally or with cultured yeasts added, not unlike the yeast packet you add to flour and water to make bread. Once the wine is fermented, it goes into barrels, gets left to sit on its lees (dead yeasts) or waits to be bottled. Tada!

12. So, you've always dreamed of working a harvest. The work is backbreaking and long. Imagine carrying around a 40-pound bin on your back for five hours per day or longer. In the U.S., grape pickers tend to be paid per ton, on average $100, but more for really selective picking. A good, strong picker might do two tons in a day. In Europe, some producers pay by the hour, up to 14 euros. It's no wonder many opt for mechanical harvesting. Kudos to the little guys who rage against the grape-picking machine.

13. How soon after harvest can you drink it? White wines are usually the first to be released, along with rosés. Reds might be aged for a year in barrels and longer in bottles before being released. The exception to the rule is Beaujolais Nouveau. This fresh, young gamay-based wine is available the third Thursday in November, just weeks after the grapes are picked. Late harvest, be damned.

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