The best way to pick grapes – mechanical or manual?

There is no doubt that when I mention that my husband owns and runs a winery many people immediately conjure up a romantic image of vineyards set amongst rolling hills with the gentle hum of happy, chatting pickers touched by the late September sunshine.

While this is indeed not entirely wrong, a deeper reflection would lead you to the conclusion that those days are to some extent behind us and for those who have read Clochemerle by Gabriel Chevallier (a great insight into village life and politics in Burgundy in 1930s) one would rightly question to what extent this harmony ever existed! Despite this, many guests that visit us in the wine rooms or in the winery are surprised to hear we also pick by machine. With one prick I feel like I have burst a bubble, the image shattered.

The question that arises is – is machine picking better? The answer – nearly always but sometimes hand picking is better too. Bewilderment all round follows!

What is hand picking?

Manual or hand picking requires teams of people each armed with a pair of secateurs and a wheelbarrow or bucket in which to put the cut grape bunches. These are then put into a larger container and transported to the winery. Depending on the grape size and quality expectation a person can pick between 400 to 700kgs a day.

What is mechanical picking?

Mechanical picking requires a grape harvesting machine which (in our case) is pulled by a tractor along the rows of vines. The U-shaped machine straddles the vines shaking the plants gently with ‘shaker bars’. The vibration causes the berries to fall off onto a belt, which are then lifted up and sorted before being collected into container bins. When the container bins are full (a total 3 tonnes of weight) they are emptied into harvesting bins and transported to the winery for processing.

The challenges of hand picking

Hand picking can be slower and sometimes much less flexible. It requires teams of people (for us up to 40) and a military level of organisation, logistics and language skills to ensure optimal results. If weather limits play (rain or heat) it is far harder to react. Should you send everyone home or is this just a small shower? We need a team for the early ripening grapes but then have a gap until the late ripening varietals 3 weeks later, what do we do with them?

Fortunately there are companies that are able to help with these fluctuations spreading teams (usually brought in from Eastern Europe) across different wineries, which, while sharing the problem does not get rid of it all together. The clear direction of travel is that people are getting more difficult to find and more expensive. Local people are not willing to do this work.

The assumption that picking by hand results in higher quality wines, as the selection occurs in the vineyard, is a myth that can be true but isn’t always. It assumes that pickers are diligent and apply their skills and training. Incentivisation and management play a role but paying people by the hour or by output has been a dilemma faced by businesses throughout the world, regardless of industry, for centuries.

A much overlooked element is the efficiency of the winery. This will vary depending on the mix of red and white grapes. As handpicking is slower it usually results in the first bins of grapes arriving at the winery to be pressed late morning. A pressing cycle for white grapes takes 4 hours which means the last (3rd) press of the day can finish as late as 1 in the morning. This job usually lands with the owner as they want the teams to be fresh the next day and paying overtime is expensive. I remember only too well the emergency purchase of a sofa, for the office, during month 3 of our marriage to help me cope with these long nights!

The advantages of hand picking

Fortunately it is not all doom and gloom! People can play a vital role and excel in places where machines do not. In steep vineyards where the gradient is too much for machines to operate safely. After rain where perhaps the ground is too wet and maybe damaged by the weight of the machinery or for ‘special’ vineyards where the winemaker wants a particular selection to make single vineyard wines, for rose wines or newly planted vineyards.

Indeed we often use a combination of people and machinery to pick. Zweigelt occasionally suffers from BSD (berry shrivel disorder), where perfectly healthy bunches suddenly shrivel, as sugar flow reverses direction in the plant and travels from the berry to the trunk. This if picked lends a bitter taste to the final wine due to the higher acidity and altered skins. It is easier to judge with the naked eye or by touch than by machine so we send people through the vineyard cutting out any questionable bunches before sending in the mechanical picker to collect the rest.

The benefits of mechanical picking

For us the paramount benefit is control. You can pick the grapes with more precise and optimal ripeness. One can react more flexibly to the weather. It is possible to pick in the darkness or at dawn to avoid potential rain or heat, without having to negotiate with 40 people! And it is also possible to ‘repurpose’ smaller numbers of people for other tasks ‘inside’ should the weather not permit. This is not possible with large teams as we simply don’t have the band width to manage them all.

Grape harvesting machines possess extraordinary software which if optimised appropriately can really fine tune the berry selection process. This is why you will often see Christof hanging off the back of the picking machine checking the settings with the driver every time they start picking a new vineyard or variety. Getting this right is an art of fine tuning but can result in far less green matter landing in the final wine than through the destemming machine (which destems the handpicked bunches). This is particularly important with red wines, the more green matter in the must the more biter the final wine may be.

And finally back to the winery. The faster speed of picking results in a more efficiently run winery as the grapes are being brought in to be processed throughout the day. Fewer late nights means better decision making, more energy and ultimately better wines.

Which is best?

I hope I have demonstrated there is no such thing. Each method has its role and for us at Höpler a combination of mechanical and hand picking is optimal. Each wine region has a different structure, climate and labour laws, which results in different picking practices. 20 years ago the high price of a mechanical picking machine was economically out of reach for us and we made our first investment when we could ‘see’ the breakeven cost falling under 10 years. We wait for the optimal crossover of price and technological progress. A few years on we are delighted with our decision but this does not mean we ‘throw out’ the old methods. I am sure we will continue in this hybrid manner for many years to come.

Please see a video of us picking in action.

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