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Wednesday, April 24, 2024


Harvest time at Natali Vineyards


By Maureen Cawley

Climate is what you expect. Weather is what you get.
Mark TwainLooking out the window at the sun-soaked rows of grapevines at Natali Vineyards last Thursday, I found it hard to imagine trouble was brewing offshore. Nonetheless, Vintner Al Natali and his business partner Ray Pen-sari had some quick decisions to make.
Over the past few weeks, Natali has walked up and down the rows of ripening fruit—tasting the grapes, chewing the seeds and examining the skin to determine the best time to harvest.
It’s a science and an art, Pensari said. Typically, the whites ripen first and the reds later. Beyond that, it’s a matter of determin-ing when the fruit is at its prime, but also watching and waiting to see what Mother Nature has in store.
This year’s dry summer has been good for the grapes, Natali said. It concentrates the fruit’s natural sugars, producing sweeter fruit, and potentially, better wine.
“The French say you want the plant to suf-fer,” he said. But with twin storms, Hanna and Ike, predicted to make landfall on the East Coast within a week, it’s not so much the suffering local winemakers are worried about; it’s the rain.
“Water swells the plant and dilutes the fla-vor,” Natali said, so all of the blessings be-stowed on the grapes by the dry spell could be quickly undone with a patch of wet weather.
“It could take two more weeks to dry the plants out,” he said, and by then, grapes for white wine like pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay could be past their prime. The best he could figure, it was time to get the grapes off the vines—and quickly. So last Thursday, they called in a handful of helpers to handpick the fruit from the vines.
Natali’s predicament is one that winemak-ers face all the time—weighing environ-mental factors against the art of winemak-ing. And Natali and his partners are new to the task.
Inspired by childhood memories of rela-tives making wine in the cellar and a news-paper article about an Atlantic County vint-ner, Natali bought his 22-acre plot on Route 47 in 2000. Since then, he has set his sights on learning all that he can about the craft.
He started out planting 14 different varie-ties on a few acres to see what types of grapes would do well here. The microclimate on Cape May County’s peninsula, with its sea and bay breezes, creates the kind of moder-ate climate where grapes thrive, and the sandy soil provides necessary drainage.
But Natali noted that growers in Italy and France have learned over thousands of years which regions best support specific varieties of grapes.
After just a few years, Natali Vineyards produced its first commercial crop in 2006, but its owners are still experimenting.
“You can grow anything here,” Natali said, “but we’re still learning what grows best.”
For now, the winery produces about a dozen varieties of wine on six acres. Several have won awards from the Garden State Growers Association.
This Saturday, Sept. 13 from 12-4 p.m. is the Harvest & Crush Festival, where you can sip Natali wine and taste cheese from Sea-side Cheese in West Cape May, while touring the vineyard and learning how wine is made.
There will be crafts for sale and music. For more information, call 609-425-0075.

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