Vintage, vendange, vendimia.. harvest is underway in vineyards all over the Northern Hemisphere. Whilst Covid has axed our opportunities to visit these areas, let’s imagine ourselves there, sitting in the sunshine watching pickers working the rows like locusts, cradling bunches of shiny healthy grapes into small wicker baskets…

Manual harvest en France

Or not! Did you know that a huge proportion of the world’s vineyards are, in fact harvested by machine. This figure could be as high as 90%, although tracking down hard data on this is proving difficult. The romantic vineyard shots, mostly taken in autumnal sunshine are not in fact the norm. A large machine, straddling the vines, bashing the stems and collecting the berries is far more commonplace in today’s vineyards.

Pellenc machine harvesters en mass…

Do I sense some outrage? Shock? “Why are you shattering our dreams?” Fear not! Mechanisation is not an Ogre waiting to crunch up the quality of your wine, rather an effective and efficient method of harvesting that reduces time, labour and the oxidative and bacterial risk that grapes are open to once picked. The beginnings of mechanisation in the vineyards started in the 60’s. Sure, there would be some quality issues at the start. Damaged fruit gave way to increased incidences of bacterial infection, bruises and the accidental harvest of external foliage and critters that would make quality control haphazard to say the least. Today’s harvester bears little resemblance to these first models. Technology has ensured that nowadays even the best fruit does not suffer at the hands of a harvester.
Here are the facts:
  • It takes a machine 1 hour to harvest 6 tonnes of grapes versus a person who takes 8 hours to harvest 1.5 tonnes.
  • Costings from a winery in Napa show that it costs $300 a tonne to handpick a 5 acre crop of Chardonnay versus $150 a tonne for mechanical harvesting.

 

Which is better? The answer depends on what you’re looking for:
  • Your average Bordelais wine producer enjoys flat vineyards, carefully wire trained vines and is looking for berries and not whole bunches of fruit. This producer will happily dispatch a mechanised harvester into his vineyards, saving both labour costs and time.
  • For the classified growth, hand picking is the norm – Chateau Malartic Lagraviere in Pessac-Leognan hires 70 workers for picking and 25 for sorting.
  • Down the road, their friend in Sauternes is waiting. Waiting for the botrytis levels to increase and the grapes to literally shrivel on the vine. She cannot use a machine to harvest the grapes. Her vineyard demands a skilled team of pickers who go through the vineyard in successive tries, picking those grapes most affected by botrytis, leaving the fresher ones till later. This is a prolonged harvest over 3 to 4 weeks, with labour costs far higher than the mechanised harvest of her neighbour. Currently there is no alternative here.
  • In Champagne the pickers are out in earnest at the moment, despite the fact that the lands, being flat with vines trained in a guyot fashion onto wires are perfect for machine harvesters. Here by law the grapes must be hand-picked. Phenolics from the skins, must be minimised as they jeopardise the bubbles in the final wine. Two of the three major grape varieties in Champagne are red, most of the production is white. Any tear in the skins, leaks phenolics and colour into the pulp, detrimental for a fine white Champagne. Berries must be harvested in bunches.
  • Spare a moment’s thought for those in the steep vineyards of Europe, those of the Northern Rhone or Mosel for example. Rebecca and Janina from Materne and Schmitt are currently working the ancient terraced vineyards of the Mosel Terrassen, steep and precarious, even spraying on these vineyards has to be done by air. The nets that line the bottom of the vineyards where they meet the roads are not for falling grapes, rather falling vineyard workers! No machine has the ability to work these ravines.

 

Janina standing in her vineyard during winter pruning.

So is the increased cost of hand picking worth the effort where the terrain is workable with machines? Marc Mondavi in Napa Valley did an experiment in 2010 where he harvested 10 tonnes of Cabernet Sauvignon, hand picking every other row. Findings showed no difference in quality between the two methods.
It’s not black and white though. Much discussion is centered around organoleptic (taste) differences found between the two methods. Personally I can’t ‘taste’ a hand-picked wine, but scientist and wine expert Jamie Goode suggests that mechanisation is the real reason that Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is up to 10 times higher in thiols (ie tomatoe leaf, gooseberry) than other areas. He suggests that the damage sustained by machine harvested fruit can give the enzymes a jump start, making way for much higher thiol concentrations than those Sauvignons that are hand harvested.
One fact is certain however. Grape harvests around the world are heavily legislated. There are strict controls on spraying, with total cessation within weeks of the harvest. Grapes from quality producers arrive at the winery, literally as nature intended. ‘Clean wine’ as promoted by Cameron Diaz is a total fallacy. Washing your grapes prior to fermentation only serves to remove the natural bloom and associated yeasts from the vineyard, rendering your fermentation controlled and uniform. The production of wine should be a natural process, using grapes from vines, some up to 120 years old, with roots that reach several metres into the soil, touching the core of the earth, translating minerals and elements into terroir in the glass. Whether that grape has been harvested by hand or machine is insignificant. Though if you do fancy a blind tasting session trying to differentiate the hand picked wine from the machine harvested one, it’s certainly a solid excuse to open a bottle or two. “Research dear”!