Any time of year is perfect for a sip, a glass or a bottle of vino from one of Cape May County's wineries, but fall is an especially good time to visit a local vineyard.
While autumn is an exceptionally busy time for wineries trying to balance entertaining visitors in their tasting rooms with harvesting grapes for the next vintage, it is also the ideal season to observe the winemaking process in action.
From August to October, harvesting the grapes to make wine is something of a celebration in the state's southernmost county. It is hard work. But each winery has its own way of honoring the the harvest and its significance to the wines that will be available at tasting rooms in the coming months.
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Here in Cape May County, the sandy soil and breezes from the Delaware Bay and Atlantic Ocean are similar to the conditions in the wine regions of Europe, which means winemakers in France are harvesting grapes at about the same time as their New Jersey counterparts.
From vine to wine
The timetable for harvesting grapes is largely shaped by weather conditions such as heat, rain and frost, which can damage the grapes and invite disease. Ultimately, the time of harvest is determined primarily by the ripeness of the grapes as measured by sugar, acid and tannin levels.
Another decision for winemakers and vineyard owners to make concerns the way in which the grapes are separated from the vines. Mechanical harvesters can be used for the job, or pickers can be hired or volunteers recruited to hand-pick the grapes.
Regardless of the method, fall is a good time to check out a local winery, open a bottle of Chardonnay or Cabernet, and raise a glass to salute harvest time in Cape May County.
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Several local wineries offer ways to explore the winemaking experience beyond the finished bottle:
Willow Creek Winery, 160-168 Stevens St., West Cape May, uses the traditional hand-harvesting method, sometimes recruiting volunteers. The winery conducts classes to educate the volunteers about the grape-picking process, what to wear and how to do the job safely. They and work alongside the farm experts, using clippers and other tools provided by the vineyard. Participants are asked to volunteer at least three hours; those who do receive a ticket to Willow Creek's annual Harvest Ball. See willowcreekwinerycapemay.com.
Natali Vineyards, 221 N. Delsea Drive, Cape May Court House, will hold a harvest and "crush" Saturday, Sept. 23 where visitors get an opportunity to experience part of the winemaking process, from harvesting to crushing, pressing and the start of fermentation. From 1-6 p.m., guests can sample wines from prior vintages, listen to music and participate in the annual grape-stomping contest. See natalivineyards.com.
Hawk Haven Vineyard and Winery, 600 S. Railroad Ave., Rio Grande, invites wine lovers to celebrate the post-harvest process called pressing with an event called Saturdays on the Crushpad. A crushpad is typically a cement patio where the grapes are brought for their juice to be extracted.
After crushing come pressing and then fermentation.
Every Saturday through Oct. 28, Hawk Haven welcomes visitors to the winery's original crushpad, which is now tented, where they can listen to live entertainment and enjoy a view of the vineyard while they sip wine paired with gourmet cheese and charcuteries complemented with locally sourced ingredients. See hawkhavenvineyard.com.
Other Cape May County wineries include Cape May Winery, 711 Townbank Road, North Cape May; Jessie Creek Winery, N. Delsea Drive, Cape May Court House; and Turdo Winery, 3911 Bayshore Road, North Cape May.