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Heading to the stomping ground

By Susan Valentine

Fall will soon be upon us, and like many of you, I will be sad to see summer go, but love the thought of cool, crisp air at night, autumn colors, a light jacket.and grape stomping. Okay, to me the grape stomping bit is more like a spectator sport. I never seem to have had enough wine to be willing to roll up my pants and step into a barrel of wet, squishy grapes.

Grape stomping is a wonderful and fun celebration of the grape harvest and the promise of new spring vintages. Whether stomping or just experiencing a local wine fest, know that you are part of an ancient tradition of applauding the incredibly hard work that has just been completed in harvesting the grapes. Picking the grapes at just the right time is more involved than most of us might realize.

I believe winemaking started sometime right after we discovered fire. Early farmers must have quickly realized that once the skins of a grape were opened, the natural yeasts in the skins started a process that resulted in a juice that definitely reduced stress. As the winemaking process improved over the centuries, the time to pick grapes become more important. The decision was made by the color of the skins and by pretty much tasting the grapes. The all important assessment, then and now, is the grapes' sugar content. As grapes ripen, the sugar content increases while the acidity decreases. Growers can pick early to maintain acidity and produce "dry" wines, or pick late in the season for sweeter, less acidic wine. Some grapes are actually left on the vine until the first frost. Perhaps you have had one of the "late harvest" or "ice wines" made here in the Hudson Valley.

On today's wine estates, there are many instruments now available to not only measure sugar content but to actually give a total grape analysis. Yet the art of tasting is not lost, as so many other factors are still in play, like extreme weather conditions (do I need to mention too much rain!) and potential pests and disease concerns. In the end, it is always the instinct of the winemaker that truly counts.

It was my visit to La Lumia Estate in Licata, a marvelous city on the southern coast of Sicily, that gave me my true appreciation for the grape picking process. At La Lumia, the same family line had been making wine since 1350, and I can testify that the wines were absolutely magical. For four to six weeks, depending on the particular grape and wine, no one on the estate sleeps for more than an hour at a time. They take turns getting up and "testing" the various grapes, yes every hour. I was astounded. Science may be available, but it is tradition handed down through the years that gives this family and their workers the keen sense of when the grapes are right. Then, when all is finally harvested, there is a huge all-day feast with lots and lots of wine. The grapes now literally go to press!

Which leads me back to the grape stomping. Descriptions of wine presses have been found going back to the second century BC in Egypt and Europe. But still most farmers stomped through centuries since they could not afford a press - however primitive they were at the time. Now, of course, wine pressing technology is very technical. But the knowledge of when and how much to press remains an amazing art.

The Hudson Valley offers you many great wineries to appreciate-up close and personal- the work and the art that goes into that glass of wine in your hand. Join them as they preserve an age old art of celebrating the harvest, pressing the grapes and providing us with "a juice that definitely reduces stress."

OK, maybe this year I'll try the stomping.

Susan Valentine has been a student of wine for over 15 years. Having studied at WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) she has also spent considerable time exploring the vineyards of Italy, Napa, and the Hudson Valley. Her newest venture, is an event planning site featuring the only comprehensive Hudson Valley event calendar.

Hudson Valley Wine magazine Summer 2014 issue

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