We have veraison at Ambriel HQ.
Right now, our Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes are changing colour. Instead of being green and hard as bullets, they are softening and becoming bruise-purple. This is called veraison (“verr-ray-zohn”). Its very exciting. We are now on the countdown to the 2022 harvest.
Until now vines have been creating energy through its leaves by photosynthesis. That’s why this year’s sunshine has been so useful. The vine has been focussing on creating energy and then storing it. The little berries on the bunches are bright green with all the chlorophyll, and are little acid bombs. Don’t try and crunch through some. They do not taste good.
But then …. All change! Now instead of making energy, the vine munches it. Yum! Yum! Yum! All the vine wants to do is ripen grapes. So it digs deep. It goes down to the energy stores in the roots and raids them to feed the grapes. Its just like a teenager on a growth spurt, constantly raiding the fridge. As the grapes evolve, the green chlorophyll is replaced with anthocyanins for red grapes, and carotenoids for white grapes. They change before your eyes.
WHY DO GRAPES GO RED?
They say that grapes change colour to protect themselves from the sun. You will have noticed that the hottest vineyards have the thickest-skinned red grape varieties. Grapes love the sun, but not too much of it. They don’t want to get scorched. Did you know some wine producers spray their grapes with sunscreen? We don’t, but then in England you don’t usually need to.
YOU’RE SO SWEET
Veraison is when grape berries become sweet. Ripening is a long and complicated process: the berry builds up sugar, it loses acidity, and it collects all those wonderful phenolics. We need those. Great flavours make great wines. Winemakers know that its the last 6 weeks before harvest that really count.
MY, YOU’VE GROWN
The grapes also get very big. They swell up as they develop sugars and those critical aroma compounds. As a rule of thumb, berries before veraison (in the lag phase) are half the size of ripe grapes. They literally double in size.
WHAT ABOUT THE CHARDONNAY?
You know we grow Chardonnay, and you know that as Chardonnay is a white grape it doesn’t turn purple. It still goes through veraison though. The berries change from being those bullet-hard and green into soft, translucent globes of pale green or yellow. If it has the light behind it, the seeds are visible through the skin and – to me at least – and it looks a bit like frogspawn.
HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE?
Different grape varieties ripen at different rates. Ripening takes between 30 and 70 days. It also depends what sort of wine you want to make: if you want a deep, hearty red you need different ripeness (and grapes) than for a crisp, elegant white wine.
The grapes look so pretty as they turn from green to purple. Unfortnately, we are not the only ones who think so. Various other creatures also look at them and think ‘Ooooh! Yummy!’. As you know, we do our best to encourage biodiversity at Ambriel HQ. We’ve been busy planting hedges and trees, sowing wildflowers and generally welcoming wildlife for the whole year. We have birds nesting in our buildings and in our vines and we never use insecticides. Though I’m not sure that the wild creatures show a proper degree of gratitude when they return to feast on our crop. Although we try and stop the birds eating too much, they know a good snack bar when they see one. All those lovely new-planted trees and hedges provide excellent on-site seating for a feathered friend.
We have one creature of habit: a badger. He eats all the low-hanging Pinot Noir in row 97 South. The grapes don’t agree with him, but he eats them anyway. We reduce our yield estimate accordingly.
They creatures that are most problematic though are the wasps. Although I’m not naturally fond of wasps, I can’t help but feel sorry for them. At this time of year, the adult wasps are no longer fed sugar by their larvae and inside their ’wasp waists’ they are slowly starving to death. No wonder they’re so hangry. I’m not surprised wasps tend to sting in the Autumn. Much like me, they need sugar. Wasps would happily slice through grape skins to get it, but instead its easier to get it from the cups of sugar water we hang all around the vineyard. Wasps die at the end of the Autumn – only the queen survives – so I don’t feel too bad if occasionally a wasp drowns in a surfeit of sugar water. What a way to go! The creature who is most delighted by this, of course, is the badger. I’m sure he believes I’m carmelising wasps just for him. His vineyard has its own sweet shop.
Every year, the first time I spot veraison in the vineyard, it starts an earworm in my head of Celine Dionne singing ‘You are veraison’. Every. Year.
Its silly, but its true.