The Successful Collector, by Julian Hitner: Wine education for us all – harvesting grapes

The Fruits of Labour

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Outside of the winery’s interiors, no time of the year is more important than the moment when the grapes are harvested in the vineyards. For everyone involved in the winegrowing process, especially when premium winemaking is the objective, there is no margin for error. Once the decision has been made to bring in the grapes, they must be brought in carefully, opportunely, and in the most optimal state.

The reasons are obvious. Great wine is always made in the vineyard. Despite all the gizmos and gadgets found in any modern winemaking facility, exceptional wine simply cannot be produced without outstanding grapes; and the decisions the winegrower makes will reflect this during the most important stages of the harvesting process.

The when, how and why

The first of these is when exactly to pick – the moment when the winegrower believes his or her grapes will be the most capable of producing the best possible wine. Picked too early, and the wine will likely taste under-ripe (often ‘green’) and excessively astringent and/or acidic. Picked too late and the wine will probably retain stewed fruit characteristics (most common in reds), disadvantageously lower acidity, and excessive alcohol. Then there is the matter of ensuring the grapes are picked in good weather. Any precipitation will dilute the grapes and exacerbate any fungal diseases. Outdoor temperatures are also a concern. If the weather is too hot, the grapes may begin to stew in the sun, resulting in oxidation and premature fermentation. This is why many winegrowers, especially in hot climates, often opt to harvest early in the morning or during the night. This is also why many winegrowers will often douse the grapes with low quantities of sulphur dioxide (SO²), to prevent oxidation at some point during the harvesting process.

Torbreck RunRig

Old vines – most picked manually

At the same time, winegrowers must decide on the method(s) by which the grapes are to be harvested. Of picking, there are but two options: persons or machines. In most parts of the world nowadays, an ever-increasing percentage of grapes are picked by machine, due to a combination of cost factors and labour shortages. From a standpoint of quality, however, few would deny that experienced manual harvesters are vastly superior to machines. While great strides have been made in improving the intuitiveness and precision of mechanical apparatuses, veteran pickers will invariably bring in better grapes, because they can snip precise clusters as well as handle the grapes with greater individual care.

Just as important, in many of the best vineyards throughout the world (especially Europe), mechanical harvesters aren’t just undesirable, they’re effectively unusable, particularly in areas where steep slopes are the norm—think Côte-Rôtie (Rhône), Wehlener Sonnenuhr (Mosel), Priorat (Spain), and many parts of the Douro (Portugal).

Prum Wehlener Sonnenuhr

Sourced from precipitous slopes

Attention to detail is critical. At the best wineries in the world, where supreme quality is the objective, manual pickers are not only responsible for procuring the best possible grapes, they must also ensure their precious cargo reaches the winery in top-notch condition. Communication is key. Once the grapes have been collected and carefully deposited into small baskets (nowadays usually plastic), they must be transported to the winery without delay, where they will be placed on conveyor belts and sorted. At each stage, there must be enough skilled people on hand to carry out all the directives necessary to ensure each step is accomplished with ease. Any mistake could result in a loss in potential productivity and quality.

Whenever it comes to great winegrowing, compromise is never an option.

Here at Home

Speaking of harvests, the 2012 icewine harvest is now underway throughout the Niagara Peninsula. A tedious, oftentimes grueling operation, temperatures must (by law) be at least minus 8°C or cooler in order for the grapes to be picked. With yields roughly 80-90% less than what can be extracted from grapes picked under normal conditions, Canada’s gift to the wine world is certainly a labour of love—and a costly one for wine lovers, though the best Rieslings (my favourite icewine grape) are easily worth every penny.

Julian Hitner

Here’s a link to a few gems for collectors: Successful Collector Reviews.