Facts and myths about hand and machine picking
Let’s start with clearing up one of the basic misconceptions.
It is not true that manual harvest is better than mechanical harvest.
However, manual harvest can sometimes be better than mechanical harvest.
But the opposite is also true:
Mechanical harvest can be better than manual harvest. Sometimes.
As often in wine, the truth is: it all depends. It depends on the circumstances and on what one wants to achieve.
What is manual harvest?
I guess most people have a pretty good idea of what harvesting by hand is. Manual harvest means that an army (sometimes a very small army) goes through the vineyard and picks the grapes bunch by bunch. They cut each bunch with secateurs, a knife or some other tool, put them in a basket or bucket. They are then put in a bigger container and finally transported to the winery to be processed.
What is mechanical harvest?
When you harvest with machine you have a tractor on which you mount a harvesting unit, or a dedicated harvester. This tractor (the “enjambeur”) straddles the row of vines and shakes the vines with “beater bars” so that the ripe grapes fall off the vine and down on a conveyor belt that collects the berries. The bars are not really “beating” the vines but rather shaking them to shake of the berries. When you harvest with machine you get only the berries, the stems stay on the vine.
Challenges with manual harvest
(One of?) the big advantages with hand harvesting is that the pickers can make a selection in the vineyard, they can chose to pick only the ripe grapes, or rather, they can avoid picking rotten or bad grapes. Or so proponents of manual harvest say. The pickers can make a selection in the vineyard. Yes, this is true, or can be true, but it is not necessarily what happens in real life. For that to happen the harvest workers need to be properly trained, have enough time and be remunerated in a way that motivates them accordingly.
In many cases harvest workers are paid by weight, so putting more grapes in the basket is a good thing for them. Discarding or not picking some grapes is unlikely to happen.
Nor is it necessarily so that harvest workers are always trained to identify and select only the best grapes. Picking is a very poorly paid job generally made by temporary labour.
Manual harvest is also a slow and painstaking process. Unless you have a lot of money, so that you can afford to hire a really big army of pickers, you may need to start picking some of the grapes a bit before they are perfectly ripe, then pick the majority of the grapes at optimal maturity, and at the end of the harvest the grapes you pick may be a little bit over ripe.
Another complication may be the opposite case: In Bordeaux, for instance, the Merlot grapes ripen early. Cabernet grapes mature later, perhaps one or two weeks later. That makes it difficult to manage a harvest work force. What are they to do in the two weeks in the middle? Nothing?
Today it can also be quite difficult to find enough harvest workers. Some producers use locals, other use nomadic workers who then go on to pick other fruit. Many use workers from Eastern Europe today.
But whoever it is it is fairly expensive and getting more and more expensive. This year new regulation was introduced in France that requires a minimum space (sq mtrs) for each worker’s lodging. Lodging the pickers can of course be a challenge in itself.
And with manual picking you may also have the issue with harvest workers simply not showing up when you need them and other employee issues.
Manual harvest is necessary in some cases, for example if the vineyard is on a steep slope. Or if the vineyards are trained in gobelet (bush vines) or pergola, or another system that is not appropriate for harvesting machines, or are very old (and not appropriately trained). Vineyards to be harvested mechanically have to be trained and pruned in a specific way.
In some wine regions it is compulsory to do manual harvest, for example in Champagne where the argument is that since they use red grapes to make white wine they would risk getting too much colour in the must with a mechanical harvest. That may be true, but they are still considering doing trials with harvesting machine, not least for cost issues (ironic, in Champagne, perhaps?) and many of the grapes are white in any case.
What about mechanical harvest?
The technology used in the machines that do mechanical harvest has come a long way since it was first introduced some decades ago. Today’s harvesters can be very sophisticated and gentle.
When you harvest with machine the berry is separated from the stem, which might in some cases be an issue, but that normally is not problem but rather a benefit.
One of the biggest disadvantages of a harvest machine is of course the capital cost to buy it. It is an expensive piece of machinery. But in the longer run, picking by machine mostly turns out cheaper than manual harvest releasing funds for other quality improvements in the vineyard or in the cellar.
A mechanical harvester is much faster than manual pickers. Some say one machine does the same work as 20 harvest workers. A mechanical harvest is typically done in a much shorter time span than a manual harvest. If, for example, bad weather is looming then the machine harvester can quickly harvest the grapes, before the storm, something that might take pickers days to do.
This also makes it possible to pick the grapes at optimum ripeness instead of starting too early and finish over-ripe. (Cf the passage above on manual harvest.)
The harvester can also be sent out in the middle of the night to harvest. This can be a great advantage in hotter climates. Harvesting at night when it is cooler can give more freshness in the wines. Convincing a whole team of harvest workers to start work at 2 AM can be difficult but it is easy with a single (relatively well-paid) tractor driver, not to mention that pickers will have difficulties to see the grapes at night.
That mechanical harvest leads to a lot of “mog” (material other than grapes, i.e. leaves, twigs, snails, bird’s nests, snakes etc) is largely a myth. Perhaps it was true with the very early harvesting machines, but no longer. Mog can, by the way, be an issue with manual harvest too.
Modern harvesting machines can also be equipped with on-board sorting units further enhancing the quality of the grape material.
One issue with mechanical harvest is that the grapes are shaken off the vine by the “beaters” of the machine. This can, or could, lead to damages on the vines and premature ageing of the vines. This is not so much a problem with modern harvesters though. They are not really beating the vine, just shaking.
Since the machine shakes off the grapes from the stem it will leave unripe grapes on the vine. Unripe fruit does not come off the stems as easily. Those unripe grapes could easily be picked by hand-pickers in a hurry.
Since some harvesting machines today have a size filter, smaller berries, e.g. mouldy ones, can be removed. (Or this can be done by a sorting table in the winery.) So unripe as well as over-ripe grapes can be avoided.
One disadvantage with machine picking is of course people’s perception of it, what consumers think of it. For example, most top level chateaux in Bordeaux (classed growths et al.), if not all, pick by hand today. That is probably more a question of image and keeping an old fashioned and “artisanal” aura rather than something that has to do with the quality of the wine.
Here’s a video of machine harvest at one of Chianti’s most famous estates, Isole e Olena:
If you talk to a winemaker or grape grower he will of course be convinced that “his” method of working is the good one. So in general, someone who picks manually will say it is the best and someone with a machine will maintain that it is just as good or better. Only the result in the bottle will show you the real truth.
I once heard a person, a supposedly professional taster, claim that he could judge from the taste of the wine if it had be hand harvested or machine picked. That’s a nice thought, but simply not true.
In reality, most of the wine made in the world today is probably (most certainly, I’d even venture to say) machine picked. It is difficult to find reliable numbers. But my guess would be that between 60% and 80% of all wines are machine picked. And what keeps this number down is that in some “New World countries the cost of labour is – sadly – so low that it is still cheaper.
If this article reads a bit like an argument in favour of machine harvest it is intentional. That is not because I think that machine harvest is inherently better. Instead it is just to give a counter argument to the oft voiced myth and misconception that manual harvest is “better” and a bit of balance in the debate. Manual harvest is not necessarily better. In fact, it can be worse. As always, it depends.
Some more from a wine region on this: Red Mountain winemakers taste mechanically harvested Cab.
Any comments or questions?
This post is also available in: Swedish