Mechanical harvesting the way to go?

It’s one of the great advances in the modern wine industry. The move from hand harvesting to machine harvesting has helped wineries make healthy savings, and brought more affordable plonk to our table, but is there really a quality link? Does the old fashioned way result in a noticeably better outcome, or is it just a selling tool for expensive brands?

It is argued that better quality is achieved through hand picking because there is less chance of the grape skin being damaged or the berry splitting. If left too long before processing, the damaged grapes can actually start to oxidise. As an additional advantage, leaves and stems will not find their way into the collection containers as easily.

With machine harvesting, the winery saves on labour, and in many countries it is difficult to find personnel, despite the current economic climate. Argentina is an example, largely due to seasonal complexities. Wine Sur reported how there has been a recent increase in demand for mechanical harvesting services, and the purchase of harvesting machines, by around 30%. In two of the key regions, Mendoza and San Juan, picking by hand was persisted with long after many European and US producers had already made the transition.

Nowadays, most of our everyday drinking wines and mid-range wines are being produced using the mechanical method, and in the vast majority of cases the results are every bit as good as hand picking. The management of the harvesting process is very important. Getting the grapes off the vine and into the winery quickly means the odd split grape won’t have an impact anyway. The harvest report at Château Bauduc is an interesting insight into how speed matters. As well as that, the time of the day.

For many of the top flagship wines, however, the gentler nature of hand harvesting is preferred, providing another level of selection in itself. Some don’t have a choice. For the selection of many botrytis affected grapes, manual labour is essential for the best quality. Other barriers to mechanical harvesting include geography. Our inexpensive Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc from John Marris requires hand picking as the harvesting machines cannot operate on the steep and uneven slopes of Fairhall Cliffs.

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