Why do winemakers sample their grapes before picking?

Published by Tamara Harrison - 10th Feb 2020

Christmas and New Year holiday memories quickly fade as grapes start to ripen in Western Australia. Around February, winemaker Cathy Howard from Boots & All starts sampling her grapes. She starts with the white grapes, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Viognier. Cathy’s here to chat about her sampling process.

I arm myself with a bucket and a pair of snips and collect bunches of grapes from vines growing in each vineyard block. I walk up and down several rows, zig-zagging my way up and back rows, randomly snipping off bunches from vines along the entire length of both rows and dropping the bunches into the bucket. I make sure that I select a mix of bunches that are growing at different spots in the vine canopy. Bunches that are shaded inside the canopy-covered entirely by leaves, bunches that are semi-shaded by leaves, and bunches that are unshaded and growing in the full sun. I sample like this as each bunch will be at different ripeness levels and I need to collect a sample which is representative of all of the vines in that block.

As well as sampling the bunches, I pluck berries off bunches as I walk along, tasting the flavours in the berries.

The reason why I take bunch samples from up and down a row, and from different growing positions on the vine, and taste berries up and down the rows, is that there is variation in ripeness levels due to the variations in soils and aspects across a block of vines, even though all of the vines are the same variety.

The tasting gives me an idea overall of the flavours across the block. By analysing the juice from the grape bunches for sugar and acidity, tells me the average ripeness level of the grapes in the block.

I then have a snapshot of what the flavours are and what the overall ripeness levels are, which I can then use to predict how many weeks away harvest is likely to be. I repeat the bunch sampling and berry tasting a week later to get an idea of the rate that ripening is occurring in that block. Then I repeat again the following week, and so on until the block is harvested.

Sampling of the red grapes usually starts in late February and continues on into April, so by the end of vintage, I will have walked quite a few kilometers through vineyards, and tasted hundreds of berries.

This is an absolutely critical part of the winemaking process as the harvesting decision, i.e when to pick the grapes is crucial to making a wine of the quality and in the style that you have been planning for. This is where all of those years of winemaking experience really pays off!

Cheers, Cathy

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