Machine vs Manual

A couple years ago while visiting growers in Beaujolais, I learned a little known fact about growing grapes there. In the northern, “cru” appellations, grapes are trained exclusively in goblet, pruned to a low bush shape, and not allowed to grow on wire trellises. I had noted this practice on previous trips but never knew it is in fact required by the AOC’s (Appellations d’Origine Controlées). Training the vines to goblet is tradition but it also compels hand-harvesting of the grapes. An important, and often overlooked, detail affecting the character, quality and price of a wine

Of course price is determined by many factors some more logical than others but one of the first and most basic is how the grapes are harvested. Luxury brands frequently market their wines as “hand-harvested”. The inference being the added cost of hand labor (and the presumed skill attached to said hand) leads unfailingly to higher quality and therefore justifies a higher price. In “premium-speak” the simple human hand has become, well, shorthand for quality. And not just for wine “products” — think hand-crafted, hand-stitched, hand-cut, hand-carved, etc. Yet I actually think there can be a lot of truth in this claim. Staying within the wine world here, there are qualitative differences to the work of a human hand (and mind and eye) that can’t, quite yet, be duplicated with machine-production techniques.

This assumption of quality has become uncontested, unquestioned even for the wine world’s one-percenters. But when I see modestly priced, handcrafted wines passed over for moderately cheaper, conventionally produced “peers” I’m concerned we haven’t advocated well enough for the value of hearts and hands at every price point. The wines I’m thinking of have been handled just as lovingly as the trophy wines and just as logically need to charge a bit more for the effort. Yet too often modestly-priced wines are forced to justify even slightly higher prices in ways high-end wines never have to. Too often small, independent vignerons, farming and fermenting traditionally are lumped in with more industrial-minded, commodity producers.

Harvesting grapes is back-breaking work and requires a dedicated team of knowledgeable, efficient pickers. The work lasts just a few weeks a year but is crucial to ensuring only the best grapes are picked. And this process requires a vigneron to maintain ties to the same team each year, pay them fairly and watch over the process as the harvest unfolds. I have seen vendangeurs in Burgundy arrive from as far as Quebec making an annual pilgrimage to work a couple different harvests and tour the rural countryside. Some growers rely on locals, friends and family for their team, and that can be the most idyllic, but not all small growers have this option, especially in a remote, rural areas. A manual harvest can ensure that each row of vines can be picked multiple times, helping to attain the critical goal of a small vineyard: to maximize the yields of each grapevine while picking only those bunches at peak ripeness. And picking whole and unbroken bunches of grapes means that a vigneron is more in control of when grapes become juice which is the natural start of maceration and fermentation.

On the other side, new harvesting machines are quite remarkable, and light years ahead of earlier rudimentary ones. Earlier automated pickers used to actually rip and pull grapes, including leaf and stem matter, off the vine which then had to be removed, sanitized, or filtered out of the grapes. Modern machines now vibrate and shake the grapes off. Most important is that any machine today cannot pick a complete and unbroken bunch, rather the result is a mix of grapes and free juice. This has many repercussions, namely that machine harvested grapes can never be fermented in a whole cluster fashion, a popular and useful technique. Another drawback of using a machine to harvest is that the entire gross weight must be quickly treated to prevent oxidation and other bacterial problems. Sometimes though, the decision about harvest method is “baked in the cake”. The way a vineyard is planted, spaced, and maintained, can make the decision easy, such as in the northern Beaujolais. Young vineyards tend to be planted densely and pruned to accept a mechanized harvest, while old vineyards tend to be wider with independent plants that may render a machine difficult or useless.

This is not to say that there aren’t good wines made using mechanization, if done well, with the proper guidance, and in small lots, the wines can be made very efficiently and cleanly. A new automated picking machine can easily cost many tens of thousands of dollars, and will only be used a few weeks of each year. This explains why machine harvests are used in larger regions with vineyards touching and overlapping each other, and in areas where the vineyards and scale of production are large, think parts of the Loire or Bordeaux, rather than Jura or steep-sloped Mosel.

The biggest difference in the type of harvest is most evident in challenging years. Machine harvesting means making hard choices about chaptalization, sulfur use, etc. Manual harvesting takes more labor and time but allows a vigneron the chance to make a serious and rigorous selection, choosing only the best and/or ripest grapes to use. I am reminded of an old saying, “The real test for a good winemaker is whether they can make good wine in a challenging year.” And no doubt controlling every detail at harvest is the first step in that process. Still there are many ways to accomplish the same goals, so the decision about harvest method is also tied to what type of wine a vigneron is attempting to make, the size of their vineyards, production, etc.

If a winemaker feels it necessary to use any and all methods to make the most volume of quality wine, then a machine might seem the best way to do so. However, if only making the best and most expressive wine possible no matter how much time and effort is the goal, then hand-harvesting is the only sensible solution. Understanding these sort of calculations each grower has to make is critical in knowing why two seemingly similar bottles can have very different prices. And these same choices should also be considered and understood by customers as well.