The Kenwood Press
: 08/01/2013

Veraison means getting ready

George MacLeod

For years we have been using the French word veraison to describe important pre-harvest changes in our vineyard, but had never seen an actual English translation of the word. Recently a French grape grower toured our ranch and we discussed it. “George, from the vine’s point of view, it means getting ready for harvest.”

Photo by Jay Gamel.
Zinfanel bunches “Getting Ready.” When Veraison is complete all these bunches will be blue-black.
The new grapes, post-bloom, start out in early June as tiny, opaque, green berries. During the next six weeks, typically until the latter part of July, there is very slow growth and very little sugar increase. The leaves have been busy making carbohydrates to store in woody parts of the vine for use in growing next year’s canes and foliage. A tiny bud has been forming at the base of each leaf that will provide critical cells for next season’s fruit crop. All seems quiet, busy, and orderly in the vineyard.

Suddenly, around mid to late July, the vine sends out an emergency “All hands on deck!” for a meeting of the Grape Maturity Committee. The question is, “Do we have the resources in place – nutrients, flavors, soil moisture, and climate – to bring all these grapes to maturity to make some great wine?” If the answer is yes, then “Let’s go for it!” The vine immediately begins a series of major actions to bring all this about.

The French call this action veraison, “getting ready,” as in preparing for harvest. Instructions for major change are sent out to all parts of the vine. Field workers can easily see and observe these sudden changes.

(Readers: Your editors George and son-in-law Ed know that there is probably not a real Grape Maturity Committee. But the vine and grape actions are so specific, coordinated, and observable in the field that we cannot imagine any other way veraison could so suddenly happen. If any of you can think of another mechanism, let us know and we will use your solution next year!)

There are some changes that take place throughout the vineyard. With veraison, each leaf is given a specific assignment of one tenth of a gram of sugar to be delivered to the nearest bunch before harvest time. The total vine’s assignment is a sugar increase of about two percent a week as a contribution to total grape sugar level. And the roots are given an assignment to pump the sugar and flavor gathered from the terroir of its site to the individual bunches. Depending on grape variety, instructions and assignments then match the characteristic of each vineyard variety. Producing great wine grapes is a big, coordinated effort for each part of the vine. Experts believe that 75 to 85 percent of the quality of a glass of wine is made this way – in the vineyard.

Let’s turn over the details of these assignments to our vineyard spokesvines Marie of our Sauvignon Blanc and Javier of our Zinfandel to see how this can happen.

Marie’s Report

Pre-veraison, our individual grapes are hard emerald green and totally opaque. With the signal from the Committee, everything changes. Our individual grapes begin to expand. Our skin color slowly begins to change to a beautiful, faintly transparent golden green that lights up with the glow of the morning sun so you can see a shadow of our seeds. Our seeds begin to get hard and change from green to striped green to solid brown.

As our leaves and roots begin to pump in sugars and flavors, our juice, which had an acidic, almost sour taste, begins to change to subtle yet complex flavors and aromas of pineapple and apricot that will inspire the hearts of wine drinkers everywhere. These flavors are so intense that many winemakers feel that with Sauvignon Blanc, perhaps 90 percent of the quality of our wine is indeed made in the vineyard. This year we should meet our “getting ready” goal by Sept. 1.

Javier’s Zinfandel Report

Marie does go on and on. Many of the same events she describes are partially repeated with us. One of the major steps needed to make a great wine is to be sure all of us are equally mature and ready. This is sometimes particularly difficult, as many of our bunches do not ripen evenly.

The first sign of veraison with us is the appearance of a few light pink berries. We often see the Old Patron driving up and down our rows in his ATV looking for the first pink berry. When his grandchildren were younger he used to give a cash reward to whoever could find the first pink berry. The pink berries gradually turn to a beautiful blue-black. Later, as veraison proceeds, it is not unusual to find some of our bunches with perhaps a third of our grapes still green. Again for great wine we really need all the bunches to be uniformly blue-black.

The Old Patron has solved this problem by having Chuy’s Army come through on Labor Day and cut off the green portions of any bunch that is not uniformly blue-black. When this is properly done the day after Labor Day, all of us are in step and ready to march uniformly to harvest.

We have another issue in that if our bunches overlap, touch or are doubled over, we can get bunch rot. So again earlier in the season we make sure each one of our bunches has a home of its own. All these details, when added to the flavors and aromas contributed by our terroir, complete our “getting ready” assignment.