Wine 101: To Pick or Not to Pick?

With the exception of fruit for late harvest and icewine, here in Canada, grapes are harvested over the course of two(ish) months in the fall. On that we can mostly agree – after all, my fall here in Winnipeg won’t look much like an Osoyoos fall.

Regardless, there are many variables that contribute to a winemaker’s decision to pick or not to pick – too many, in fact, to pack into one blog post, but let’s have a look at a few…

The most important variable as to when grapes are picked is ripeness of fruit. Without getting into the technical, scientific nitty-gritty – brix, or the Baumé scale, or other clinical indicators of a grape’s sweetness (which are often measured in on-site winery laboratories) – it’s enough to begin by saying: certain grapes ripen faster than others.

Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Pinot Noir, for example, are all relatively early ripening grape varieties, while bigger, heavier reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Syrah need more time on the vine to properly ripen.

Even within one region, there can be variation. Chardonnay grown in the warmer Osoyoos portion of the southern Okanagan Valley, such as what goes into the Perseus Chardonnay, is typically picked earlier than those from a winery in the northern Okanagan – say, the Tantalus Chardonnay.

But even among vines a single vineyard with a single grape variety planted, there can be variations. Rows and bunches that see the most sun will ripen before rows where there’s more leaf coverage, general shade or cooler breezes. They’ll need to be picked days before other grapes in that same vineyard are ready to go.

Add in vintage variations and late weather anomalies, differences in soil, the abundance of pests (or lack thereof), the production of late-harvest wines (worthy of its own blog post), and much more, and it’s clear that deciding when to pick is never when the winemaker just plain feels like it.


Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson is the wine columnist and literary editor for the Winnipeg Free Press. He’s on Twitter and Instagram at @bensigurdson.