Determining Harvest Readiness in Wine Grapes at Unionville
I am packing up and getting ready to escape the office for a great yoga class. I’ve been looking forward to the class since Monday.
It’s only Wednesday. Hump Day. The Wednesday before our Annual Fall Harvest Festival. There is plenty to do - 5 pm and the vineyard crew is just starting to press the Riesling grapes they’d been harvesting all day.
So...close... I’ve got my yoga mat in my car. I’m ready to go. I’m almost there...
And Cam stops me.
Dang. So close.
“Wanna go sample grapes?”
He’s got his vineyard hat on, and his dog Rocky is at his heels. There is really no way I can say no.
Such a beautiful afternoon. A bit warm, but comfortable. I love fall. The leaves are changing color, and it’s so quiet and peaceful out here I easily forget I’m in New Jersey.
We walk through a break in the treeline, up the hill, to our Top Vineyard. The Riesling and Chardonnay have all been picked, though there are some now-very-sweet grapes still hanging on the vines.
We continue, back to the red grapes. Back here, thanks to New Jersey Agricultural Extension and Rutgers University, we have a new weather station. The station sends data to NEWA, the Network for Environment and Weather Applications, housed at Cornell Universty. Cornell and Rutgers University scientists explore the data and use patterns to advise growers like us on when to expect diseases and insects. As growers, we use the scientists’ research results and our very own vineyard data to help manage pests and also to predict growth and maturation during the growing season. The more we know, the better farmers we are.
Moving towards the grapes, we begin to take samples. Taste, you know, is of primary importance! These grapes are just delicious.
The main reason we are up here is to take samples of the Cabernet Sauvignon and of the Chambourcin. Cam hands me a ziploc bag and sets down some ground rules
Then, he sends me off.
Well, now! This seems to me to be quite a big responsibility. He’s going to use my sample to determine whether or not to harvest and to see how far along these grapes are.
Pretty big deal.
I walk down rows of Cabernet and he takes Chambourcin.
We meet at the end.
“Did I not get enough?” We each half-filled our Ziploc baggies, but he’s also holding a cluster of dark, plump Chambourcin grapes.
“My daughter loves these.”
The Chambourcin grapes, compared to the Cabernet, are huge, nearly double the size, and very very red.
We walk down the hill, Cam’s dog running out ahead, and bring the samples back to the lab.
There, we “smoosh” the grapes (smoosh is a technical term, you see). Cam measures the sugars and acidity for each juice. He doesn’t tell me anything. Not before I taste.
I taste the two juices, almost like I would taste wine, noting the flavors and where on the palette I taste them. The Cabernet has great blueberry notes, with a bit of green apple tartness. The Chambourcin starts off blueberry - then, bam!, overwhelmingly green apple.
The big reveal: The acidity of the Chambourcin juice is much higher than that of the Cabernet, and neither is ready to be harvested.
The tastes of the grapes and of the juice tell Cam everything. The numbers he gets from the lab tests only back up what he knows from tasting alone.
I miss my yoga class. I’ll make it to another one. Harvest is just a crazy wonderful time of year. I don’t want to miss it.
~Stacy, Operations Coordinator & Wine Geek
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My name is Rachael White, and I am the new vineyard manager at Unionville Vineyards. I am thrilled to be part of the team and produce exceptional grapes for exquisite wine. I’m eager to begin this role and I wanted to introduce myself to share a little of my background.
I became interested in grape production right out of high school while working at my local research and extension center with the viticulture team. Little did I know when I started that viticulture would become my passion and career going forward. I got to work with industry famous people like Dr. Tony Wolf and Dr. Cain Hickey and interact with growers that were more than happy to share their joys and dismays about farming grapes. I fell in love with the seasonality and the fact I could always be outside! With a newfound purpose, I attended my first semester at Virginia Tech in the fall of 2013 and immediately focused my degree on wine grape production. I took every wine and vineyard related course offered at the time and enjoyed other horticulture courses along the way. I studied
abroad in Cortona, Italy where I learned old world wine tradition and began refining my palate.
I finished my Bachelor of Science degree in December of 2016 and looked to gain more knowledge from elsewhere in the world. I decided to work a vintage in the southern hemisphere and set my eyes on New Zealand. In March of 2017, I started work at a contract winery in the Marlborough region that produced Sauvignon Blanc, but also small batches of Pinot Noir, Gewurztraminer, and Pinot Gris. I worked on the “Red Team," and processed mostly Pinot Noir
in small orders for clients.
What a difference a year can make. August 2018 through July 2019 was the second rainiest 12 month stretch in the recorded history of New Jersey weather. These records stretch back into the late 19th century, which gives context just to how wet that is. It's not easy growing wine grapes when it rains every other day from August through the end of harvest. As we slogged through a wet May and June, we were making preparations to endure another difficult season. A torrential thunderstorm on July 11th dropped over three inches of rain on most of our vineyards. Todd Wuerker, winemaker at Hawk Haven Vineyard said to me on the phone "it has to stop, it always evens out" and I scoffed at that idea. The weather today doesn't know what happened the day, week, or month before.
Todd was right! An atmospheric switch flipped in mid-July, and high pressure dominated the mid-Atlantic for the rest of the season. There were isolated thunderstorms to dodge through the rest of summer, and Unionville fared particularly well in this stretch. Over the 10 weeks of harvest, less than three inches of rain fell across our vineyards. We went from a historically wet stretch to historically dry, and it came just in the nick of time.
Today, we are picking the first grapes for what is Unionville's 27th harvest. Two years after the first grapes were picked and fermented, they were sold in the newly-opened tasting room- 25 years ago. Although I've been thinking about this moment for about a year, we've started our anniversary celebration and I'm still struggling to put it all in context.
In the past few years I've learned so much that could be shared with you now. I've spent hours at the township building, reading through letters written back and forth between parties involved in the winery's founding in the early 1990's. I've walked the vineyards, pausing with each "King of the Vineyard" as Conor calls them- the craggy, gnarly vines nearly as old as me. I've stared at the black and white photos in the hallway of the 1858 Farmhouse of the family and workers who tended to this property many decades ago.
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