As fall descends, harvesting the year’s produce becomes a priority. Nowhere is this season more critical than in a vineyard. Grapes require constant monitoring, and a good farmer knows at exactly what time the vines should be stripped.
For the folks at local wineries, the variances of New England weather have presented special challenges, as well as rewards.
“We actually bought the farm in 2001,” said Virginia Carter, owner of Walpole Mountain View Winery. “When we went to look at it, I was immediately struck by the thought that, anywhere else in the world, this would be a vineyard. It had rolling hills, an ever-present breeze, and plenty of sun. Really, everything you could want to grow grapevines.”
At first, Carter considered this as little more than a fantasy. As time went on, however, the idea grew, and she began doing some research.
“For the heck of it, I started looking online for cold-climate grapes,” she said. “This connected me to the University of Minnesota website. I discovered they had hybridized four grape species, one of which actually survived the winter, when it was 50 below zero. I thought, if they can grow grapes there, then why couldn’t I do it in New Hampshire?”
Carter said the farm now grows 32 varieties of grapes, suited especially to this arduous environment.
“These are cold-climate grapes, a French-American hybrid developed in the Finger Lakes,” she said. “We also tried some of the cool climate grapes, but they just didn’t make it here.”
Carter said the process of harvest begins in the second week in September, as she begins testing the grapes for sweetness.
“You have to wait for the sugars to go way up as they ripen, and balance out the acid,” she said. “The sugar is important, because that’s what provides sweetness, as well as alcohol. On the other hand, if you didn’t have the acid, it would just taste like table grapes. You need that in there, to provide some kind of backbone.”
In order to facilitate this delicate balancing act, Carter said that constant scrutiny of the vines is of paramount importance.
“We have so many varieties, some of which are early-ripening and others mid-season ripening,” she said. “You have to time them, so you understand where they are in the year. You also have to take into account the issue of where they are in the vineyard.
“You have to think about which ones are getting more sun, or more wind. You really have to keep an eye on them throughout the summer. When it gets to be August, they start to exhibit what the French call veraison, or a change in the color of the fruit.”
Carter said that this change is her signal to think about testing the grapes, which begins three or four weeks later. That’s when she examines them for sugar content. The staggering of the ripening actually helps the farm out, to some extent.
“You really don’t want them to ripen all at the same time,” she said. “We have five acres of vineyards here. Even with 30 independent contractors working with us, it’s still a lot of work.”
For Darren Horn, winemaker at Summit Winery in Westmoreland, grape-picking is a relatively small part of the process, as they only have about two acres of vineyard in cultivation. That doesn’t, however, prevent them from producing about 1,400 cases of wine a year.
“We purchase a lot of our grapes from local farmers, as well as producers in Argentina, California and Chile,” he said. “We start picking in the last week in September and go through October.”
For Steve Robbins and Mame ODette, owners of Poocham Hill Winery, the grape-picking season got off to an early start, and they’re just about wrapping things up.
“We have about six acres of grapes, which we start picking in the middle of September,” Robbins said. “Because of the varietals we have, they ripen at different times. Luckily, the ones we have the most of ripen earlier. So, we’re pretty much finished, and are now processing the grapes.
“With the red grapes, we run them through a crusher-destemmer, and then ferment them with the skins. With the whites, we press them right after crushing them, without the skin. It’s all about the amount of tannin you want in the finished product.
“In all, we produce about 500 cases a year. Last year was really bad as far as the weather was concerned, but we hope to be making up for it now.”
Carter said that Walpole Mountain View wines are well-represented in the region, with availability at Hannah Grimes Marketplace, the Monadnock Food Co-op and five local Market Basket stores.
“At the height of our production, we were selling about 150 cases each year,” she said. “I have actually retired from winemaking, but we still have an inventory of about 100 cases left. I’ll still be growing and harvesting the grapes, which we will be selling to other wineries in New Hampshire and Vermont.”
Carter said that, even though the weekly wine tastings will soon be no more, she will still be hosting special events, such as weddings or Christmas.
“Because we’re winding down, I want folks to know it’s been wonderful growing from a fledgling business to a complete winery,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of community support — a lot of people come here and want to dive into the barrel and squish the grapes.”
Walpole Mountain View Winery is at 114 Barnett Hill Road, Walpole, and can be reached at 756-3948, email@example.com or bhvineyard.com. Summit Winery is at 719 Route 12, Westmoreland, and can be reached at 852-8025 or thesummitwinery.com. Poocham Hill Winery is at 26 Poocham Road, Westmoreland, and can be reached at 399-4496 or poochamwinery.com.