Are hand-picked grapes the hallmark of a true quality wine?

Human vs machine: Jonathan Hesford gives a vigneron view of the pros and cons of hand-picking grapes.

21 August 2020
A bad bunch of grapes in the hand-picking process of wine-making.The man vs machine harvest debate, explored. Pictured: rejecting bad bunches.
By Jonathan Hesford

Human vs machine-harvesting

Some wines have the words “vendange manuelle” on their labels as a way to differentiate their product from the majority of wine, which is harvested by machine. What does hand-picking involve and should it be considered as a hallmark of quality? I will start by describing how machine harvesting works.

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How machine-harvesting works

Most wine we drink today is machine-harvested. It involves driving along the rows with a complex harvesting machine, which beats the vines with a number of flexible rods. The grapes are knocked off their stems, collected in a trough at the base of the machine and conveyed to storage buckets at the top.

When the buckets are full, they are emptied into large trailers or trucks to be driven to the winery. In France, this is often the village cooperative or private winery nearby but it is possible to transport harvested grapes long distances. In Australia, California and New Zealand it is not uncommon for grapes to be harvested in one region and driven hundreds of kilometres to a winery in another region.

Although the process is quick, reduces the labour costs and can be performed at any time of day or night, it has several disadvantages. First of all, the machines cannot really select bunches or grapes. That means mouldy, rotten, dried-out or unripe bunches can be picked along with healthy ones. Although machine manufacturers have developed methods to eliminate certain undesirable types of grapes, they are still not as thorough as well-trained people.

Pickers in the vineyard
Pickers in the vineyard

Secondly, the process of beating the vine means that lots of other things fall into the trough. Bits of stem, dried leaves, snails, insects, lizards, bird’s nests and even clips to hold the wires. The Australians call this MOG. Matter Other than Grapes. Some of the MOG can be removed at the winery by putting the grapes through a sophisticated destemmer but those things have been in the juice during transport and the smallest bits will not be removed.

Thirdly, the grapes harvested by the machine are not whole. They form a very liquid must of skins, pips and juice (and all the MOG) that is susceptible to oxidation before it reaches the winery. The longer the distance, the higher the risk. I have seen vignerons adding sulphites to the trailer or throwing in dry-ice in a vain attempt to protect it from the air. I have also seen full trailers left outside in the sun while the workers have their lunch. It also introduces a risk of bacterial contamination if the machines and trailers are not cleaned thoroughly between operations.

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Benefits of hand-picking

Hand-picking eliminates these negatives. Pickers can be trained to select only the healthy, ripe bunches, taught not to pick leaves or other MOG and, perhaps most importantly, the grape bunches can be transported whole and unbroken to the winery. However, hand-picking is not a silver bullet. If the workers are not trained or supervised, they will still pick bad fruit. They will still put leaves and shoots in the bucket. If they are tipping the bunches into the trailer, the grapes at the bottom will get crushed and leak juice. Some wineries will employ a second team of workers sorting the fruit at the winery or use a sorting machine to make up for this.

Picking the grapes into small cases makes the sorting and quality control easier than if they are in a large trailer. It is not possible to sort machine harvested fruit to the same level because it has been crushed and mixed up in the machine. Some vineyards have to be picked by hand, whether the vigneron wants to or not. Vines grown without trellis, in a bush or Gobelet form, are not able to be machine harvested. Vineyards which are too steep or inaccessible to vehicles need to be hand-picked too.

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Different techniques for different wines

Certain styles of wine require the bunches to be whole and therefore hand-picked. Champagne grapes are whole-bunch pressed in order not to bleed any colour from the two black grapes – Pinot noir and Pinot meunier – and to give the cleanest, freshest juice at pressing. Therefore machine-harvesting is banned in Champagne production.

Most non-fortified sweet wines are made from hand-picked fruit. Those made from bunches infected with “Noble Rot”, such as Sauternes, Coteaux du Layon and Monbazillac, require pickers to select the bunches with the correct level and stage of rot. The top chateaux in Sauternes may pick over the same vineyard up to nine times, sometimes picking individual berries, in order to get the perfect fruit. The vendange tardive (late-harvest) wines of Alsace are also made by hand-selecting very ripe bunches. 

Wines made using the Carbonic Maceration technique, common in Beaujolais and becoming more popular in the Languedoc-Roussillon for making fresher, fruitier wines, also need to be picked as whole bunches with unbroken fruit. This is because the bunches are not crushed, pressed or fermented until they have spent about a week in a sealed tank, filled with carbon dioxide.

The end of harvest barbecue
The end of harvest barbecue

Therefore, vendange manuelle is not necessarily a mark of higher quality. It may be an undesirable necessity because of the age, terroir and location of the vineyard or a requirement for the kind of wine being made. However, it is often the choice of quality-focused producers for all the reasons given above. Finally, like the words “vieilles vignes”, there is no official regulation or verification. Unscrupulous wine producers may put “vendange manuelle” on the label purely for marketing purposes.

Whereas an already famous producer which has always picked by hand is unlikely to bother putting the words on their label. One final point is that hand-harvesting employs people. One of the best things about harvest for me is having a good team of pickers working together and exchanging stories at coffee breaks. The end of harvest barbecue would not be much fun if it was just me and the machine driver.

Disclaimer: I include “vendange manuelle” on my back labels because I want to show that my wine is made to a higher standard than that generally associated with my region. I do not know whether it influences anyone or not.

Jonathan Hesford is owner and vigneron of Domaine Treloar in the Roussillon; www.domainetreloar.com. If you would like to suggest future wine topics feel free to email him at info@domainetreloar.com.

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