The grape harvest is at its peak in the Languedoc at the moment. You can’t go anywhere, at practically any time of the day or night without seeing the great hulking harvesting machines, tractors pulling trailers full of grapes and less often, teams of hand harvesters. Even at three in the morning you’re likely never far from a machine, spotlights blazing, scything through a vineyard.
It would seem that most vignerons choose mechanical harvesting. In France over 60% of the harvest is mechanical (I couldn’t find specific figures for Languedoc but could assume that it may be higher) and around the world, at least 90% of vines are harvested by machine. But what is the advantage of harvesting by machine, and surely a manual harvest will produce a better quality grape? It doesn’t take a genius to work out that a machine works out considerably cheaper than a team of pickers. A “vendangeuse” as the beasts are known can do the job of dozens of pickers. I have been told that on perfectly even ground a machine can replace 50 people! This is obviously the major issue for the winemakers, particularly those who produce everyday wines where hand-harvesting would ramp up the price considerably. The other major factor in the machine’s favour is that it allows the winegrower to act quickly and harvest at exactly the right time. And the right time may be at 3am, when the juice for their rosés and whites will come in at a cooler temperature, ready for a cool fermentation to preserve aromas and freshness. The right time might also be just before three days of forecast torrential rain during an “episode Méditerranéen” which can happen down here any time from early September. To martial a team of 20 or more pickers in the event of forecast bad weather may not be quite as easy as booking a machine and driver, although that can be tricky when everyone wants one at the same time.
But what are the downsides of mechanical harvesting? In a nutshell, the harvester straddles the vine and literally shakes the grapes onto a kind of rotating carpet which dumps the grapes into large paniers which are then emptied into the trailers waiting at the end of the row of vines. During this process, fans try to remove as much as possible of the foliage that has also been harvested. The very nature of this process means that there are two downsides: the violence of the process inevitably leads to the splitting of some grapes, and no matter how good the new machines are at getting rid of foliage, there will always be some greenery in the mix (the very best machines can now get as low as 0.2%). One more downside is that the vineyards which are mechanically harvested tend to have a shorter life span. If you’ve seen vines just after a machine has harvested you will understand why. Despite the incredible advances in the technology and the great wines which are produced using machine harvesting, you will never see the words “Machine Harvested” on a bottle of wine! It just doesn’t fit with the bucolic image of friends and family, in their straw hats, settling down to a big harvest lunch in the shade after a back-breaking morning of snipping bunches and carrying baskets.
So what exactly is the problem with a few split grapes and a bit of foliage? The foliage, as long as it is at a very low level, is not a major problem as that can be separated at the domain with an “égrappoir”, which only allows grapes and juice to pass through (and potentially anything as small as a grape). The bigger issue is the splitting of the grapes. This can lead to oxidation of the juice. Some producers who deal in large quantities may resort to spraying liquid sulphur dioxide on to the grapes to halt the oxidation. All very well, but it’s another addition of sulphur which could be avoided. However, if a good machine is used and the grapes make it to the wine press quickly, there shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
There are areas where mechanical harvesting is forbidden: sparkling wine areas such as Champagne and Limoux here in the Languedoc, in Beaujolais and Sauternes. but for different reasons. In the sparkling wine areas and Champagne in particular, where two thirds of the grapes are red, any splitting can lead to the colour of the juice being tainted. The other reason is that these producers do more than one pressing. They gradually press the grapes, keeping the juice from each press separate. (The second is considered the best as it contains the most sugar and interesting acidity). In Beaujolais though, whole bunches are needed as this is the home of Carbonic Maceration (see previous posts) where the initial fermentation takes place inside the intact grape. In Sauternes the grapes which have the botrytis fungus are separated manually.
A lot of the wines that we sell have been mechanically harvested. This does not stop them being excellent products. The advances in technology mean that most of the downsides of machine harvesting have been eliminated. However, if you have a vineyard which is not accessible to a machine or if you want to have maximum control over the quality of your harvest, then you will need to hand harvest. I’m sure that good hand harvesting has to be better than a good machine, but technological advances now mean that the “vendangeuses” are not far behind.