September is harvest season on Hvar! You can smell it in the air, you can hear the clatter of the processing equipment, and everyone, it seems, is up early and picking grapes. It’s known here as “jematva“, elsewhere in Croatia as “berba“. Once the summer tourist season ends, everyone turns into a winemaker!
We’ve been learning about the local grape varieties, and how to determine when they’re ready to harvest. Professional growers take a scientific approach measuring the acid and sugar levels, while traditional wisdom talks about the grapes looking as wrinkled as an old man’s face – ie turning to raisins!
Of course, it all depends on what type of wine you’re making. For prošek (ie dessert wine), it’s best to have the sugar more concentrated – so those grapes are left until they all look like old men! For a less sweet wine, you’d need mostly younger men!
The white Bogdanuša grapes are usually the first to be harvested. This is a local Hvar variety that produces a lovely light summer wine, and these vines are mostly grown at sea level on the Ager – the Stari Grad Plain. However, we’ve seen them also in the upper terraced vineyards around Svirče.
The onset of harvest season means firstly the washing of all the equipment. Around the island you see barrels, presses and tanks being cleaned out ready to receive the new vintage. And to do that, you may need to drink the remaining wine from last year! In Vrboska it seems many people make their own wine, and in the mornings we hear the chug of tractors setting out before dawn, heading up to the fields. That’s for those fields horizontal enough to accommodate a tractor!
After the picking comes the lunch for all the friends, family and others that turned out to help. It’s hard work, especially in the kinds of high temperatures we’re still seeing into late September this year. Hence the early start in the morning, not just to keep the workers cool, but also the grapes until you’re ready to process them. That’s when it all starts to get rather noisy!
Up until a few weeks ago, I had not heard of a destemmer – although I had certainly heard the noise they make! It’s like a churning, rattling oil-drum of spanners and wrenches – quite deafening at close quarters and still audible through several stone walls! This device gently(!) removes the grapes from the stems, so as not to contaminate the juice with their green flavour.
The loose grapes are now sucked into the press, and out drops the must – the fresh grape juice. Which I have to say tastes amazing! We were recently invited to watch the process at the Plančić winery, where we were greatly inpressed by the amount of sheer physical work involved, and by the efficiency of this team of brothers that has clearly done this task many times before!
This first juice is produced just under its own weight, no squeezing involved. There’s choices to be made by the winemaker, as to how long the skins and pips should be left in the juice to add flavour to the final wine. The must is carefully tested and tasted to check the quality, and pumped into a stainless steel tank. As I followed the pipe in the door of the winery and across the floor to the tank, I heard a low-level bubbling coming from the next tank along. This turned out to contain red grape juice already halfway through the fermenting stage.
The wooden bars are holding down the grapeskins which, in red wine, need to spend time in the juice adding colour and flavour. It wasn’t obvious to me, but fresh grape juice from red grapes is not red at all, it’s the same colour as the juice from white grapes! All the colour in red wine is leeched from the skins, which at this point are broken and bruised. It’s up to the individual winemakers exactly how long they will leave the skins macerating in the juice to achieve the effect they want for each batch.
And, of course, the wafting smell of fermenting grape juice is everywhere. When I open my front door in the morning, it hits me – that sweet yeasty smell that promises well for this year’s vintage. September is a busy time on Hvar!