An Insider’s Guide to Why, When and What Happens at Grape Harvest Time.

The Green Acres wine team, recently completed our annual, Autumn trip to Bordeaux in France. We were there to witness the 2021 grape harvest.

I have referred to harvest time in many posts on this blog previously. Donal Morris has also written about trips to harvest time in France, here and here. Patrick O’Connor has posted about his personal time spent working the grape harvest in France, here.

Why is harvest time important? During the growing months, frosts, heat waves, and hail can all decimate vineyards very quickly. So, it is important for winemakers to have ideal conditions for grape growing throughout most of the year. This requires just the right mix of sun and rain to produce the best grapes.

Obviously, a very close eye is kept on the conditions. Then, at the end of the season, if the picking conditions are just right, the vintage can deliver on the winemaker’s ambition.

Consider how stressful it is for the winemakers when harvest time approaches. They are totally in the lap of the weather-gods. Even so, I must admit that it is a special time of year for me and all in the industry.

It’s no wonder that wine regions around the world celebrate with festivals when a grape harvest finally occurs! AND believe me it’s a great time to visit one and meet up with old friends.

What Happens during Grape Harvest?

Grape picking (or harvesting) is the first step of several in the winemaking process.

For still wines, this usually happens in Autumn which, in the northern hemisphere. This can mean any time between the end of August and as late as mid-October. In the southern hemisphere, it’s the other way round, obviously.

Throughout the latter period, grapes are checked carefully during daytime until ideal levels of acidity and sugar ripeness are reached. Only then can they can progress to produce the desired style of wine.

The amount of natural sugar in the grape is responsible for the final alcohol level. This also determines how dry or sweet the wine is going to be.

The colour of the skin, pips, stems and how the tannins taste in the mouth are also important indicators for the winemaker.

In fact, many wine regions with designated rules such as AOC or IGP, will issue strict rules to adhere to for many of the above elements.

Grape Harvest is Blood, Sweat and Tears

Like other farmed products, the mantra of the grape harvest could be, it’s bloody hard work. Have a read of Patrick’s blog post here for his personal experience.

In all my years of travel, harvesting grapes has never been depicted as glamorous, charming or easy.

It’s certainly not meandering through a vineyard plucking grapes from vines willy-nilly. Time is of the essence, so speed and efficiency are key. The grapes will continue to ripen as long as they are on the vine, especially if the weather is warm.

Usually, the work will begin early during the day when the sun is low. The weather is cooler and better for picking grapes. In fact, some will only pick during night-time to avoid the heat of the day altogether.

Patrick often reminds me that if you’re not on picking duty you could be cleaning equipment. The grape press, the inside of tanks, the floors all need to be spotless. Cleanliness may be next to godliness, but it is non-negotiable when it comes to winemaking.

Cleanliness may be next to godliness, but it is non-negotiable when it comes to winemaking. #greenacresirl #deiscoverwineCLICK TO TWEET

Hand-Picked vs Machine-Harvested Grapes

First, let’s clarify what I mean by the above. Hand-harvesting grapes is performed only using hand tools, including knives and/or shears, either manual or electric. After bunches are cut, they’re placed in collection baskets or bins and transported to the winery.

Machine picking, typically refers to an over-the-row harvester. This machine travels through vineyards using rubber or fiberglass rods to shake fruit off vines and into large reservoirs.

A winemaker is typically loyal to the harvesting technique they use (though some use both). At the end of the day, effective techniques depend on the circumstances, goals, and style of the winemaker.

Either way, in some appellations, hand-picking is the law. For instance, one of the biggest challenges in Champagne is finding the nearly 120,000 pickers needed for the three-week harvest. Perhaps the English wineries might well be feeling the same pressure regarding pickers, in the current circumstances.

Vineyard terrain, vine spacing, and vine training can also dictate the manner of grape harvesting.

Vineyard terrain, vine spacing, and vine training can also dictate the manner of grape harvesting.CLICK TO TWEET

Which method is better? Well, I suppose what you should really consider is this: Do you like the wine for the price you are paying? If the answer is yes, it doesn’t matter how those grapes were picked.


Phases of the Grape Harvest

When asked, I usually break the grape harvest into four phases. We have looked at the 1st one already. To surmise: bunches of grapes are picked, collected, and transported to the winery.

The 2nd phase is the crushing (traditional treading/stomping). Before the crushing, the grapes are put through a specific machine to separate the grapes from the stalks. This process is important because the stalks, once crushed, could release tannin substances characterized by a wood and cloying flavour.

The collection and the crushing must be as close as possible, to avoid the grapes being ruined.

The 3rd phase is the fermentation. The must, obtained by the crushing above, is put into tanks, called fermenters, for this phase. There are a few types of fermentation but here are the main two:

1. The red fermentation, keeps the must in close contact with the skins. This allows the dissolution of the aromas and the seeds.

2. The white fermentation immediately separates the must from the skins and the seeds. As a result, the wine will be almost without tannins, and will have fruity notes, fresh and delicate flavours.

The 4th and final phase comprise two of the most important elements: the second fermentation and the ageing. These topics are large enough to have blog posts of their own so I’m not going to delve into them here.


Grape Harvest – An Overview

Grape harvesting is one of the most important procedures for wine producers.

However, it is not easy to define the right harvesting time for grapes. Environmental conditions, the soil type, the location of the variety, and the growing techniques play a crucial role in the quality of the final product.

Producers harvest different types or varieties on different maturity stages, to achieve desired quality characteristics. It is a stressful time for producers and hard work for pickers.

If it is such hard work though, why do people volunteer to work during harvest? For me it would be because of the connection to nature, the culture of hard work and integrity. It is also of being a community, and to have a greater understanding of the grapes in the glass.

Alas, I’ve moved on from being a volunteer picker. But spending three or four days with that community is a time of year I really look forward to. I get to witness the growers’ stress levels; the pickers’ hard work, the owners’ sheer relief and everybody’s eventual celebrations.

I would highly recommend a visit if you can organise it.

#staysafe – Talk Soon – James.

christmas wine bottle and glass