The First Fruit

By Eric Weisinger, The Traveling Winemaker 

Yesterday afternoon our first Pinot Noir grapes arrived. Here in Marlborough it is usually Sauvignon Blanc, the variety for which New Zealand is perhaps best known, that is the first to come off the vine. But these Pinot Noir grapes, from the Omaka Valley (one of the sub regions of Marlborough), were ready. And so were we. It was not a lot of fruit really, only four bins, or around 1.2 tons. Put into perspective of the 1,200 tons of Pinot Noir we expect to crush this harvest, yesterday’s effort represents .1% of the Pinot we will see this season. Put into perspective of the 26,000 to 28,000 tons of grapes the winery will process in total this harvest, that effort looks like…well, maybe just an excuse to get the equipment dirty. Nonetheless, there was not a face among us that wasn’t smiling when we were finished.

Marlborough is an interesting wine region to work in. One aspect that makes Marlborough unique is the number and variety of foreign winemakers, assistants, lab techs, cellar workers and general wine enthusiast who flock here every year to take part in the harvest, or “vintage” as it is called here. Most stay just for vintage before traveling on, but a few fall in love with the region and end up staying, becoming a permanent part of an evolving and growing wine region. As a result, the cultural quilt of Marlborough is also changing nearly as fast as the vines are growing.

When I arrived in Marlborough in 2007, my first vintage in New Zealand, I was one of 40 foreigners brought in to work vintage for the regions largest custom crush facility, Indevin Ltd. This year the foreign vintage staff at Indevin has topped 100 with people from countries such as (are you ready for this list?) Ireland, England, Scotland, Spain, Portugal, France, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Italy, Macedonia, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, South Africa, India, Australia, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and, of course, the United States. The diversity of a group such as this creates a fantastic and colorfully cultural environment in which to work vintage. Countless years of experience from around the world, all in one place…it’s enough to make one want to open a bottle of wine and celebrate every day. And we often do.

Yesterday, as the grapes began arriving, word spread that the first fruit of the year was coming in. Now, 1.2 tons of fruit does not require a lot of hands to process. In fact, two to three people can quite comfortably prep, process and clean up the whole operation. Nonetheless, it was not long before the crush pad was full of people wanting to observe or help with the year’s first fruit. For years, I was used to seeing grapes come off the vine only once a year. For me, that first glance of the new vintage has always been thrilling, and even though in the last couple of years I have had that opportunity twice a year, the experience has not become any less exciting. By the look on the faces of everyone standing around the crush pad yesterday, I know I was not alone in my excitement.

As the grapes were tipped onto the sorting table and made their way toward the destemmer, hands from all over the world picked through them. Bits of leaf, any unripe berries or the occasional bug were all plucked out. With the number of hands involved these would undoubtedly be the cleanest grapes of the season. In fact, as I watched, I began to wonder if these might not become the cleanest grapes in the history of winemaking. Not being able to resist the temptation any longer, I squeezed in on the sorting line to get my own fingers sticky. I stood there for a second, then picked a couple of grapes and popped them into my mouth. The sweetness of sugar, that vibrant sensation of acid and the youthful bite of tannic skins filled my palate. Over the excited chatter of more languages than I could count, and the scent of freshly crushed grapes, I felt that wonderful feeling of knowing two things for certain: Harvest is here. And so am I.

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