Judging the ripeness of your wine grapes can be a subjective matter.

The Work Involved in Picking or Harvesting Grapes for Wine

by Dawn Denmar

Nothing is more satisfying than watching fruits and vegetables mature, knowing you can use them in the kitchen. Wine grapes (Vitis spp.) are no exception. Harvesting grapes from your own vines is a job in which the whole family can become involved. Kids love the opportunity to help at harvest and can be surprisingly useful. By the second year after planting 1-year-old grapevines, they will be producing around 15 pounds of grapes each.

1. Assessing Ripeness

Assessing when your grapes are ripe can be difficult when you're new to it and is based on the type of wine that is to be produced. Test random samples of grapes regularly, with a hydrometer and by taste. As the grapes approach ripeness, take juice samples by crushing and assessing the sugar levels. It is up to you when you harvest. Some growers want maximum sugar levels because it leads to higher alcohol levels in the wine, but that may mean sacrificing flavor.

2. Prepare All Equipment

The day before your planned harvest, sterilize all your grape picking and crushing equipment. Buckets, cutting shears and fermentation equipment should all be clean and ready to use. This eliminates any bacteria that could cause damage to your fruits or wine.

3. Harvesting Grapes

Harvesting grapes a few days late is far better than picking them too early. Use shears to cut off the ripe clusters of grapes. In hot weather, harvest your grapes early in the day, before the sun has chance to warm the fruits. Cool fruits crush more easily. If it's raining on harvest day, don't pick the grapes because rain affects sugar levels in the fruits. Because you can expect about 15 pounds of grapes per vine, you can assess how much work your harvest will involve and whether you need friends to help. Harvesting may be physically hard as you may need to bend down to cut the grapes or climb stepladders to reach the higher bunches. Don't harvest bunches that are unripe.

4. Sorting and Crushing

Ideally, the grapes will be ready for sorting and crushing before the sun has had time to warm them. You need to remove each grape from its cluster and sort the grapes to remove those that aren't perfect. As an amateur wine-maker, you'll probably be crushing grapes with the traditional foot-stomping method. Once you've cleaned your feet carefully, it's just a case of hopping into the container of grapes and stomping them all to make sure you get as much juice as possible from each grape. Treading grapes can be quite tiring, particularly if the grapes are hard and difficult to crush.

5. Annual Vine Care

The care you give to your grapevines leads to the results you achieve from your harvest. As fruit begins to ripen, one of the most important factors will be protecting your grapes from birds and other wildlife. Limiting your crop yield will also lead to better quality fruits, for example a vigorous shoot with more than 30 leaves could be limited to producing only two clusters of fruit. Keeping your grape vines clean, healthy and well-watered are also important.

6. Choosing Vines

Grapes generally grow in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 2 through 10. The types of vines you choose to grow will depend on your hardiness zone. Traditional European grapes (Vitis vinifera) will grow in warm, dry and sunny Mediterranean-type climates, while native American grapes (Vitis labrusca and Vitis rotundifolia) and hybrid forms are the most cold-hardy. The variety of grape you grow influences the types of wine you can make.

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