Hand Picking vs Machine Picking ???

Rise of the machines – An insight from Dylan Arvidson, our winemaker

Picking, it’s a touchy subject in the wine industry, what is best for your grapes?

Machine harvesters or hand pickers?

Before we delve, slightly into this, I will declare that for our situation we are in the machine harvest band camp. If you have visited Cape Grace you would know we are a small estate with all of our grapes grown onsite and processed at the winery, which is also onsite.

There is defiantly a romance in hand picking. Sending your fearless troops out at the crack of dawn as the sun peaks over the horizon, they march through your vines which you have cared for meticulously over the past 11.95 months picking only the most perfectly ripe, unscathed bunches of fruit for you to process through the winery. It takes hours (roughly 12 pickers/hr per tonne) for all of those 11.95 months of work to be stripped from the vines, a glorious pursuit surely … Especially compared to the war of the worlds styled monsters that rumble, shake and generally disrupt the calm nights, dreaded machine harvesters right?

Wrong!

Technology has moved so far forward in the last 5 years with the next generation of machine harvesters. These machines are piloted by men and women who are extremely talented at their job, albeit  some of the most caffeine driven people you have ever met!.

The pellenc optimum harvester which we secure from a local contractor each year utilizes an on-board destemmer and sorting table. The same destemmer and sorting table setup that you would fork out $100,000+ to have installed in your winery. It glides through our vineyard in the cool of the night, the time when grape flavours and pH levels are at an optimum, and gently shakes off our fruit, leaving only berries. Small, unripe, berries are dropped to the ground, leaves are dropped to the ground, petioles are dropped to the ground, get my drift? We end up with roughly 95%+ removal of unwanted materials.

Fruit is then transported to the winery in the cool of the night and tipped directly to press or fermenter, where the winemaking begins with no ‘lag’ time between picking and processing.

To undertake a 6 tonne Chardonnay pick at Cape Grace it would take us around 4.5 hours using hand pickers, plus the time to collect buckets of fruit through the vineyard, lets round that up to a 5.5 hour pick in total.We would have start at 6am with the pick finishing just before midday, in the heat of the day.

Whereas the machine may take 1 to 1.5 hours to achieve the same pick, starting at 2am and finishing by 4am at the latest. The cooler evening temperatures allow us to capture the intended flavour profile of the variety and the fruit is delivered to the winery in pristine condition .

Harvester in Action

Conclusion

I make no attempting to write off hand picking, but I want to make it clear that machine harvesting has come a long way in terms of quality over the last few years.

There are many factors the also effect the decision to hand or machine pick including;

  • Vineyard location in regards to winery
  • Vineyard accessibility
  • Intended wine style
  • Winery/Winemakers ethos

Winemaking in its simplicity is the art of transferring and enhancing the flavours of the grapes through the winemaking process all the way from vine to wine. The grape quality is of greatest importance so next time someone tells you that machine harvesting is a ‘cheaper’ way of picking keep in mind they may be trying to sell you on the romance of hand picking rather than the quality. Every wine is unique but pristine fruit is essential to all.