We wouldn’t have wine without the process of grape harvesting. This may seem like a trivial observation to make, but one worth mentioning. The grape harvest lasts from late August to early November and the overall impact of the harvest affects 90% of the total vineyard, with relative increase in costs.
It’s not hard to understand why the grape harvesting period is one of the most important and most “sensitive” within the life of wine. Winemakers must take into account a series of factors – management of the work force, amount of time necessary for harvesting, tools and machinery, the actual winemaking process and so on. This is why the art of manual harvesting is slowly being replaced by mechanized forms of harvesting. The traditional, romantic view of grape harvest with only a scissors and a basket is soon becoming hard to keep up.
The use of machinery within the vineyard has, until only recently, been viewed with great skepticism. Producers preferred to harvest by hand, and even now hand-picked harvest is considered an artisanal option which is reserved for certain varieties of grapes before the vinification process. In some cases, opting for a more artisanal approach is necessary since certain vineyards may be too small or inaccessible for machinery. Just think of the sloping hills of Montalcino in Tuscany or the rocky terrain of Sicily or the narrow passages in Friuli!
Hand-harvest therefore still remains a first choice for all producers with a medium to small production and with territory that is simply not big enough or which is too difficult to access, if not by foot. It’s clearly a different scenario when it comes to a vineyard of hundreds of hectares. Harvesting by hand on such large territory would take weeks. In this case, vintage machinery can be a perfect solution for those who want to combine quality & tradition with the speed of execution.
The latest generation of harvest machinery are called “self-propelled harvesters” because they are able to move around independently without the help of a carrier machine, as was the case until recently. The harvester is able to oversee it all through the comfort of the cabin, as the machine moves through the vineyard rows and literally shakes the grapes off of the vines so they come off the stalks naturally. Once the bunches fall off, they are then gathered into the machine. The harvest is then brought to the cellar to be separated and stored.
This is how grapes are harvested by machinery, but the question still remains – if there are no human harvesters, who does the quality control of the grapes, ensuring that the grapes harvested are not damaged or are ripe enough to be harvested? The latest generation of machinery actually allows for precision sorting, with adjustments from the expert winemakers. Grapes that are unripe do not get shaken off the stalks, thanks to the machine being able to identify a “weak stalk”. Grapes that are “too dry” will though be harvested by these precision machines as they are too light to be able to imprint the energy impact into the machine. All in all, this precision harvesting could be a considered a type of “natural”-mechanical harvesting – too difficult to do entirely by hand even for the most experienced harvester.
In short, there is no one type of harvesting that is best. It depends entirely on the scenario at hand. Rough terrain, vineyards with narrow rows – these are ideal candidates for experienced specialists and should be hand-harvested. But cases such as vast and airy grounds simply don’t allow for hand-harvesting and would actually be counter-productive economically. In these cases, harvester machinery is an effective quality/time solution.