What a beautiful time of year.
The Texas Hill Country AVA is pulling in a promising harvest for 2017, judging from the wineries and vineyards I have seen to date. The growing season got off to a relatively early start this spring after a mild winter, navigated frost and hail for the most part, and did not suffer through major rain events in the summer. A few vineyards have picked about a week or two ahead of typical dates, but others are on normal schedules, and will face choices balancing weather, ripeness, and time in coming weeks. That means things are moving fast across the entire region!
I spent a few days (and nights) at a couple Hill Country wineries and vineyards, taking photos, video, and time-lapses to capture the 2017 Harvest. If you ever wonder about the effort put in to bring #TXWine to your favorite tasting rooms, this will give you a pretty good indication. Here are a few scenes from a colorful Texas Hill Country harvest. (All photos copyright 2017 Hill Country Light Photography).
Hawk’s Shadow Winery – Dripping Springs
When the sun rose over the lower vineyard at Hawk’s Shadow, the picking team was already two hours into the morning harvest. The estate winery has 7.5 acres under vine, and picks everything by hand. With the earliest rows planted in 2004, both Vineyard and Team are hitting their stride this year. The vines look exceptionally healthy, the fruit is clean and free of any significant defects, and the owners have improved their defense against harvest poachers like birds and raccoons. You would be amazed at just how many grapes a raccoon can eat!
Owner Doug Reed attributes the vineyard health to vine maturity, and a regular protocol of Hydrogen Peroxide, which attacks precursors of fungus, mold, and other maladies before they become a problem. The treatment evaporates within minutes and leaves no trace, so it can be safely applied the night before picking, leaving the vineyard ready for a beautiful morning’s work to harvest clean fruit. Doug said he has irrigated only twice this season, as the vines are now well rooted in the limestone soils and steep pitches of his ranch. Grenache, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, and Mourvèdre are hand-harvested by an experienced family team as well as winery employees and club volunteers. In 2017, the team filled bins with solid yield and quality, and heady aromas wafted through the winery. The grapes were brought to sorting triage via bucket and buggy, where they were binned by a quite impressive German crusher-destemmer, new for 2017 and by all accounts an upgrade in efficiency as well as treatment of the fruit. Watch the team put it to work in the accompanying video.
The winery has the potential to create a beautiful GSM blend with this quality fruit in 2017, as well as satisfy demand for their estate Tempranillo, which has come up short in prior years due to weather-related issues. Sangiovese also fared well and together with the rest of the grapes, will present a lovely portfolio of estate grapes for winemaker Tom Reed to work on this autumn.
I have followed this winery for a few years, and was happy to see honeybees present at flowering, and at harvest. They know, perhaps better than anyone, the potential for exceptional #TXWine from this site, and this team.
William Chris Vineyards – Hye
The Hye Estate vineyards at William Chris were planted in 2013, in blocks of Petit Verdot, Malbec, and Tannat, followed by a block of Mourvèdre in 2015. This year, the winery rented and brought in an ultra-modern harvest machine, made by French manufacturer Pellenc, and owned by Rusty Dutton of Texas Vineyard Management in the Texas High Plains. Watching this harvester at work was fascinating. There are many reasons why the choice for hand vs. machine harvest is not as obvious as one might think, so the investment to bring the big Pellenc into the small vineyard was supported by a number of factors, including picking crew availability, threatening weather, and a desire by winery owners Bill Blackmon and Chris Brundrett to assess quality. In the end, the Pellenc harvested the majority of the Hye Estate vineyard, with the team picking Malbec on the final day.
The Pellenc is one sophisticated machine—comfortable and easy to drive (with GPS navigation down the rows), four-wheel steering for 95° turns, an onboard conveyer for sorting, and a blower to remove leaves. There is even an option for optical sorting. With a $400,000+ price tag, it certainly is a formidable tool! When everything goes well, it can bring ripe grapes to fermentation status faster than traditional methods—a valuable benefit when you are working against time, capacity, the elements, and a full schedule.
The Pellenc is capable not only of certain removal of grapes from vine, but also of de-stemming on board and presenting a clean batch of grapes to the bin, ostensibly ready for crush or fermentation at the discretion of the wine team. However, depending on the ripeness level, some grapes have a greater tolerance for machine harvest, and will resist bursting better than others. While you always prefer whole grapes in your harvest bin, in practical terms we are talking about fruit located and pulled from the estate, so the risk of oxidation or malady to a portion of “juiced grapes” is minimized because the fruit will be safely within the confines of the winery within minutes, rather than hours.
The blocks at William Chris were picked two ways via Pellenc, with and without on-board destemming. There was a touch of rain the morning the Pellenc was utilized, and this necessitated the activation of the big wind machine on site, to help dry off the grapevines and keep the fruit as dry as possible. Even with a 90 minute interruption, the harvester made quick work of the assigned block in the remaining morning harvest window. This would not have been so easy to achieve with a hand-harvesting team in the same timeframe.
That said, what a seasoned hand-harvesting team can do is pick fruit in beautiful whole clusters, and present it in a manner that allows the winemaker to have more options for fermentation, perhaps utilizing whole clusters in combination with clean fruit. And, the harvesting team can use personal judgment in the vineyard, bypassing fruit that is not optimally ripe. With a machine harvester, what you grow down the row is what you will get in the bin, so it is important to maintain as uniform and consistent of a crop as possible, otherwise there is a higher risk of combining good fruit with undesirable elements.
You can see how well the Pellenc did its job in the short video, from vine to bin to winery. And, what you will see in the photos of the harvest team is the pride and joy of participating in a tradition practiced throughout the wine-growing world for centuries.
Miguel Lecuona is an International wine marketing consultant and professional photographer in Fredericksburg, TX. His photography can be found in tasting rooms and websites of numerous Hill Country wineries, as well as online at HillCountryLight.com. His exhibition, Wine+Vine From Bordeaux+Texas, is on display at Bryans on 290 Restaurant in Johnson City.