GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – The debate goes on: to harvest by hand or by machine.
Some top-quality wine producers argue that machines just don’t cut it, that they are not as good at harvesting grapes as humans. Hand-crafted is undoubtedly always a good marketing line. But are consumers being bamboozled by it?
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The first grape harvesting machines made their appearance in Switzerland in the 1980s, but the new generation in the past 4-5 years, which do a better job, are interesting more growers. Terre & Nature magazine wrote in 2010 that the machines are useful for smaller wineries that don’t have the option to house and feed temporary staff during the harvest, citing a grower in Tartegnin who rents his machine and services to some 15 other wineries. It quoted Geneva’s cantonal oenologist Alexandre de Montmollin as saying the machines also offer a flexibility that isn’t always there with teams of pickers, to decide to harvest earlier if weather causes sudden rotting, or to harvest in the wee hours of the day when temperatures are cooler.
Switzerland has a number of areas where machines simply can’t get in there to do the job, for example in mountain areas with steep slopes or among the narrow rows and terraced vines in Lavaux, on Lake Geneva. Hand-cultivated and hand-picked are marks of pride for these growers, who argue that a team of pickers who have worked with a winery for years, whose skills have been finely honed, are irreplaceable. In reality, only about one-third of canton Vaud’s vineyards can accept a machine; the others have slopes over 30 percent, according to Terre & Nature, too steep for machines.
But Thierry Walz at Uvavins near Morges says a number of the cooperative’s growers who supply high-quality grapes from the area between Morges and the Vaud-Geneva border are now using new-generation harvesters. “These machines do an excellent job,” he argues, ignoring unripe grapes and neatly removing the berries while leaving the stems on the vine.
It’s is a 10-15% cost-savings for growers and provides the cellar with grapes that have far less green matter. The quality of the grapes in some cases is likely to be better.
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I visited vineyards in Tartegnin this week, where two machines were hard at work, an all-in-one harvester and a smaller version pulled by a tractor. Indeed, the quality of the harvest is impressive, and the machines pick a row faster than a team of pickers. On the negative side, their environmental footprint appears to be heavier, but I haven’t seen a reliable calculation for that.
A concern that remains is a possible too-rapid oxidization of the grapes; you can see in some of the photos in the gallery that a certain amount of juice is extracted during handling, a process that with hand-harvesting occurs when the grapes are closer to the cellar and vinification starts under the guidance of the oenologist.
A word of caution if you’re near one of the harvesters: don’t walk behind them! A blast of air, sometimes with a bit of detritus, is an unpleasant surprise and safety risk.