Having grown up in the UK, harvest festival was a big occasion, celebrating the end of weeks of hard work in the fields in order to bring in the crop ripened over the summer. It’s a time where farmers can breathe easy, seeing the fruit of their labour safely stored and not at the mercy of the weather.
For vignerons the world over harvest represents an equally important time in the calendar year, determining the size and quality of the vintage. The European grape harvest begins in the south in mid to late August, working its way north with teams of pickers from around the world slowly following the sun to ensure fruit is picked at optimum ripeness for the style of wine being produced. It is a tense time of year, with weather having a huge impact on both harvest dates and quality. Rain can bring with it huge disease pressure, forcing the hands of the viticulturalist to bring harvest dates forward in order to protect the crop. Equally, hot weather sees sugar levels rise whilst acidity plummets. This leaves the harvest team racing the clock, working to bring the fruit into the winery before the winemaker is left facing the challenge of producing a palatable wine with 16.5% alcohol and little natural acidity to provide structure and elegance. The ideal conditions for optimum fruit quality are long, warm and sunny days, with white varieties normally harvested before reds. For some regions such as Bordeaux, harvest conditions can be more variable thanks to exposure to the Atlantic, which goes some way to explain the differing vintage reviews and price tags to match.
Europe is known for producing a hugely diverse portfolio of wine styles: from the sparkling wines of Champagne, crisp whites from Northern Italy, Grand Cru reds of Burgundy, lusciously sweet dessert wines from Sauternes to the fortified styles from Spain and Portugal. Each has their own unique method of production, which starts in the vineyard and extends into the winery. Harvest is either done by machine or by hand, with certain wine styles dictating the requirement for a hand harvest; Champagne needs whole bunches and Sauternes requires individual berries to be selected, focusing solely on those infected with noble rot, concentrating both sugar and flavour in order to produce these world famous sweet wines. To put it into context, it takes one vine to make a single glass of the region’s flagship wine, Château d’Yquem.
Whatever the style of wine being produced, this is a time of hard work, with vineyard teams starting whilst it is still dark and working until late in the afternoon. Depending on the range of grape varieties produced, harvest can take 6-8 weeks with pickers working relentlessly 7 days a week. Given the work involved, it is hardly a surprise perhaps that the end of harvest comes with a celebration, a vinous version of those from my school days and far more exciting for it. One of the most famous of these is La Paulée in Burgundy. Once a widespread practice around France, this now marks three days of celebrations in Meursault, les Trois Jours Glorieuese, paying a tribute to the end of the grape harvest. Long and indulgent lunches are accompanied by bring your own wine, possibly the classiest version of this in the world with iconic bottles bought from the well stocked Burgundian cellars of everyone attending.
Harvest marks a time of out with the old and in with the new. So much so in fact that in Rioja, the Haro wine festival in June revolves around a battle of wine, with festival goers dressed all in white and throwing jugs of red wine over each other. Traditionally this was done to free up cellar space in order to bring in the current vintage of grapes, with the river running red with un-drunk wine given that the Riojans had no other way of preserving it. Nowadays this is no longer an issue, thanks to the introduction of barrel ageing from the Bordelais, but the festival still continues to mark this special time of year.
The 2021 harvest is well underway in Europe and much waits to be seen of the quality of this years vintage. Widespread frost, drought and hail have all caused issues for winemakers in what can only be described as the most challenging conditions post COVID. It is perhaps more important now more than ever then to raise a glass, or several, to those working so hard to bring us the bottles we will enjoy in future years and to stock your cellars ready for the longer nights ahead.