As you may well know, wine is one of the oldest fermented beverages in the world. The exact dates are disputed, but it’s said to date back to as early as 7000 and 6000 B.C. Technology has advanced a touch since then, and the methods that we use to pick, sort, and harvest grapes for winemaking have as well.
Traditionally, grapes were picked by hand and then stomped by feet. Now, many wineries use machine harvesting and crushing. Sometimes, wineries that no longer use machine crushing host events where patrons can participate in grape stomps! While much less common than machine harvesting and crushing, some wineries also use optical sorters to replace traditional sorting tables.
Grape Harvesting Methods
Grape harvesting (or grape picking) is the process of removing the grapes from their vines. Different grape varieties become ripe at different times, and many wineries have staggered harvests. Icewine, as an example, has a much later harvest than most other grapes. Icewine harvests are often anywhere from December to March, depending on the temperature (which must be below -8℃ to qualify as Canadian Icewine).
Picking Grapes by Hand
One might call it the “age old method” of hand picking grapes. As the name would imply, it means picking grapes without the assistance of machinery. With that in mind, generally hand harvesters use a pair of shears in one hand, while using the other to select and move the grapes. The below video shows the harvesting process. You will also see vineyard staff hand sorting the grapes (1:02). This process is sometimes mechanized as well, with the aid of optical sorters.
Mechanical Grape Picking
Mechanical grape picking is a truly interesting process. Large tractor-style machines straddle the vines and use paddles to ‘swat’ the grapes into buckets for sorting. It is often assumed and argued that this is harmful to the grapes, but machine harvesting technology has appeased these concerns, with settings for different types of vine systems and levels of ‘abuse.’
Here, you see a mechanical picker in action:
Notice how the machine also plays a role in sorting and removing materials other than grapes (MOG), and how quickly the machine is able to pull grapes from the vines. Mechanical harvesting is a fantastic way for wineries to save money, which ultimately makes the end result cheaper for consumers.
Sorting Grapes: No Spiders, Please!
The most common method of sorting grapes is by hand. Vineyard or winery staff are positioned along sorting tables, and pick each bundle of grapes up by hand, inspect, and remove any MOG. MOG really does mean any material other than grapes; spiders, dirt, leaves, broken branches, and bird droppings – you name it! Sorting also is when grapes that don’t make the cut are removed, as to not negatively impact the flavours in the end wine. Grapes that don’t make it though might be underripe, overripe, or even rotten.
While not nearly as common as machine harvesting, some wineries are lucky enough to have optical sorters. Optical sorters photograph heads to gain a visual of the grapes, and uses this visual to determine if the grape is suitable to make wine with. The operator of the machine sets the rules for the amount of grapes excluded, and what parameters warrant exclusion.
One of our favourite wineries, Vineland Estates, obtained an optical sorter in 2014 and named it “Game Changer”
Crushing Grapes: Machine vs. Hand (or Foot)
Grape crushing is usually a stomping ordeal when first mentioned. While most wineries no longer foot tread or stomp on grapes for monetary, sanitary, and efficiency reasons, it isn’t entirely obsolete. Portuguese grapes are often still crushed by foot.
Nowadays, most wineries use crusher-destemmer machines that separate berries from stems and crush them. This is a two-step process where the grapes land into the destemmer, before being shifted into another machine and crushed. Some ingenious humans have created their own crushing destemming machines for homemade use, through sifters and belts. While the specifics of crusher-destemmers vary by unit, the concept is consistent.
We’ll leave the debate about which methods produce the best end wines for another time. You’re equipped with an understanding of different picking, sorting, and crushing methods. What methods have you tried in your own winemaking, and what techniques do you think are the best? Let us know in the comments, WineBlotters!