The Hippo


Jul 16, 2019








It starts with grapes
How the growing process can make or break wine

By Stefanie Phillips

 Since the majority of wine in this world is made from grapes, knowing where and how to grow them is essential. Here in New Hampshire, like in any climate, some grapes grow better than others. The winemakers in this state and around New England who grow their own grapes have discovered, through research and trial and error, the ones that will grow best. These are typically French hybrids, so you’ll see names like Marechal Foch, Leon Millot and Seyval, just to name a few.

Grapes need certain conditions to grow. I’m currently reading a book called Windows on the World: Complete Wine Course by Kevin Zraly, and he breaks down the basics of growing grapes. The wine-making process and the amount of work that goes into it fascinate me. 
The basic factors to consider are growing season, number of days of sunlight, the sun’s angle, average temperature and rainfall. Soil and drainage are also factors. The amount of sun determines how the grapes ripen, which in turn determines their sugar and acid balance. These levels can make or break a wine.
It is no surprise that certain grapes planted in more ideal locations produce better wines. But the kind of grape also plays a role in this. Red grapes typically have a longer growing season than white, which is why they grow well in warmer locations (think Chile, Australia and Portugal). Many white varietals are hardy and can survive in places with colder temperatures like Germany and northern France. Vines don’t typically produce winemaking grapes until their third year, so some planning and patience are also required!
Grapes are ready to be harvested when they reach the ideal sugar/acid ratio desired by the vintner. Zraly suggests tasting a grape off the vine in June. It will be very sour and make your mouth pucker. But taste the same grape in September or October and it will taste sweet. This is because months of sun exposure have caused photosynthesis (you know, the plant process we all learned about in elementary school), which encourages the production of sugar. Acidity decreases as sugar increases. 
In many videos of vineyards, you will see the winemakers out in the fields constantly tasting the grapes. This is because they know what they are looking for and are waiting for just the right time to harvest the grapes.
Weather definitely plays a role in grape-growing. A harsh spring frost can reduce the number of plants, as can a strong windstorm. Other factors like too much rain, not enough rain or rain at the wrong time can be detrimental. 
If there is a heavy rainstorm before harvest, it can cause the grapes to swell up and dilute the juice. This can result in watery, thin wine. A lack of rain can create a more concentrated, stronger wine, but also means a smaller crop of grapes. A very cold spell can also greatly reduce the harvest and, in turn, decrease overall wine production.
In addition to these conditions, there are many other things that can harm the grapes while they are growing. Mildew can rot the grapes, while drought can scorch them. Too much sun can actually prune the grapes like raisins and increase the alcohol content. 
Phylloxera is a vintner’s worst nightmare because it can actually kill grapevines. According to Zraly, an 1870s epidemic almost wiped out all of the European vineyards. Thankfully, American grapevines were immune to this strain. Later, in the 1980s, phylloxera caused problems in California. Several vineyards had to be replaced, cost ing owners billions of dollars.
Interestingly enough, Chile has been immune to phylloxera — one of the few countries to escape it. This is because its grapes came from France in the 1860s before the outbreak. 
“Vintage” is just a fancy word that means the year the grapes were harvested. A vintage chart shows the weather conditions over the course of several years. This is why you may hear someone say, “2003 was a great vintage.” Actually, 2003 was one of the best years for grapes in every region around the globe.
Growing the grapes is the crucial beginning of wine making. After all, if you don’t have good grapes, there is no way you can make good wine. 
As seen in the July 3, 2014 issue of the Hippo.

®2019 Hippo Press. site by wedu