How Big is That Zinfandel Cluster?

Sacre bleu! Veraison! Zee moment of truth!

Veraison in July at Robert Biale Vineyards
Veraison in July at Robert Biale Vineyards

Yes, we’re going through a French phase. An exciting one at that—we are changing colors!

This is that crucial time of the wine growing season when the Zinfandel and Petite Sirah bunches start to turn from green to purple. It’s a beautiful thing–and hey–what is more exciting than anticipation? It’s a perfect time to head to wine country and ask a winery permission to taste a grape. No charge at Biale. You’ll probably be surprised how sweet they are. Typically, supermarket table grapes measure about 16-18 degrees of sugar. Wine grapes when perfect usually measure out at about 23 to 25 degrees–often higher. White grapes do it, too, as they morph from hard green to a softened yellow-gold.

The French who know a thing or two about wine historically, employ the term “veraison” (vehr-ay-zone) which loosely translates in a nice bit of figurative speaking to “the moment of truth.” A lot of American grape growers simplify it a little to “veray-shzun” which is a little easier on the tongue.

Typically, around late July/early August the vine starts transferring its stored-up energy in its roots to its fruit in its attempt to reproduce itself. A grape is basically an egg (uva in Italian) where the seed is protected by pulp and skin which lucky for us is an abundant source of tasty juice for making wine. The combination of purple grapes’ anthocyanins (compounds responsible for color), and its acids, sugars and tannins make for an ideal balance of components for making a delicious drink. In our case, we interrupt that reproductive cycle, pick the grapes, crush them, and help all the sugar ferment into a moderate amount of alcohol. This makes for an even more pleasurable and fun beverage that you can enjoy for years and years–les vins extraordinaire! 

As we race down the track with the finish line in sight, the grapes’ acids (malic, tartaric and a little citric) are starting to fall. The grapes’ sugars (fructose and glucose) are starting to rise. When those two levels intersect perfectly – just enough acid, high enough sugar and the flavors start to pop – it’s go time. La récolte commence! – harvest begins! And to compound all the excitement is a feeling of high stakes gambling – with picking you get just one roll of the dice. No do-overs. You can’t put ‘em back!

Veraison progression at Robert Biale Vineyards

If you ever wondered why Napa and Sonoma Valleys are considered such famous world class wine regions, a lot of it has to do with the perfect conditions for nailing these acids and sugars – the sunny summer days and cool nights close-by the cold Pacific. Sun for sugar, chill for acids. Combine that with bone-dry volcanic and alluvial soils that both nurture the vines and concentrate flavors, and you’ve got a dynamite cocktail for wine quality! C’est Magnifique!

In the vine’s case, it’s like its batteries are running down, and depending on its stored energy there comes a time when the grapes stop ripening and the season is over. Sugar will concentrate as the berries lose water but we don’t want that to go too far because the sugars spike and the alcohol will get too high.

Erika Cole Photography, Aldo's Vineyard harvest in Napa Valley with Robert Biale Vineyards
Erika Cole Photography

As we finish veraison and harvest 2019 begins in Napa and Sonoma Valleys, we expect to be picking and crushing in a few weeks – probably early to mid-September, weather permitting. As for 2019 quality, our expectant mother’s baby looks to be above average weight which is always a good sign. Acids, sugars, color, and flavors are coming along as we hope, so we are on track again for terrific wines.

Heres à une grande récolte! – heres to a great harvest!

Dave Pramuk