One of the true joys of being both a farmer and a winemaker, is that one transitional day when the two jobs collide. Tasting the fruit and making the decision when to harvest can simultaneously prove to be both nerve-racking and a relief. The farmer mindset is nearly always “get them off ASAP”, while the winemaker is more obliged to “let them hang”.
I get to wear both hats at Five Rows, so vetoing the decision either way tends to be a little less contentious. It does not, however, preclude me from massive bouts of second guessing and remorse. To that end, there are a couple of coping methods I’ve employed in recent years to aid in arriving at harvest timing decisions a little more confidently.
The first is to seek the advice of as many of my farmer and winemaker colleagues as possible. How are things looking to them? Have they harvested any of that particular varietal yet? Do the crop level or conditions in this vintage remind them of any others? If so, how did the wines turn out? What are some techniques for dealing with fruit harvested a little early or hung a little too late?
The second method is splitting picking dates – i.e., harvesting a portion of the crop early and hanging the rest until after the troubling weather forecast. My tendency has been to err on the side of good fruit condition over the years, but I’ve become a little more willing to roll the dice with split picks in the last few vintages. This could involve flagging individual vines or entire rows depending on the varietal and block. Perhaps the most interesting case study in this respect was the 2019 Syrah.
We grow two different Syrah clones on our farm (7 and 100), each inhabiting a unique plot of soil. The Clone 7 is planted a little further north, in heavier clay, while the more vigorous Clone 100 vines can be seen lining the driveway in to our barn. The decision to split the picking dates in late October 2019 was based on the rapid onset of Botrytis and looming rain.
The fruit for the first bin was harvested from a combination of the cleanest rows in both blocks. After some rain and a week of drying out and bonus ripening time, the second “later harvest” bin was filled predominantly with fruit from Clone 7, which tends to stave off Botrytis a little longer than Clone 100 on our site, due to slightly less vigour and increased distance from the headlands.
The early bin (cleaner, higher TA) was given a little longer cold-soak and allowed to start fermenting wild, while the later picked bin (riper, softer skins) was inoculated with RX60 yeast after a four day soak. The bins were pressed to separate barrels (100% French, 20% new oak) after 15 total days on the skins.
There were some jitters about the split pick decision early on, as the higher acidity in the “early pick” barrels (pre-malolactic fermentation, mind you) was evident, but it was so clean and varietally pure (red fruit, spice, pepper) that I held out hope.
When it came time to blend, the two picks came together harmoniously, complementing one another and zigging where the other zagged. It proved to me that there is more than one way to make a complex wine.
Aromas include blackberry, cherry and pepper. This drinkable Syrah comes across smooth and ripe on the palate with flavours of dark chocolate and sweet peppercorn. It will continue to soften and open up in bottle – best enjoyed 2023 to 2028.