Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Hand vs Machine Harvesting

When grapes are harvested manually they should be undamaged (by human hands, anyway) and unpolluted with leaves and other detritus. They arrive at the winery in a healthier state so they can easily be sorted and the process of making wine can begin. Manual harvest is expensive, as wages for pickers must be paid each year.

Machine harvesting saves money, in that after the initial outlay of capital (which can be financed and depreciates, and is therefore tax deductible) is essentially a one time cost, other than yearly maintenance. This probably explains why most wine is made from grapes that are harvested by machines. But mechanical harvest damages some grapes, breaking them and mixing their juice with the other grapes. And the leaves, vines, and material other than grapes that inevitably comes with machine harvesting can cause aroma and flavor flaws.

This is, of course, a simplification. The impact of machine harvesting on the quality is not something that everyone can agree on. There are many studies investigating the effects of machine harvesting - do a search for "grape machine harvest study" and you'll see loads of them. Like most studies, the results vary.

I wonder, though, if asking about quality is all that important. Quality depends on the preferences of the taster. Imagine that a producer bottled two versions of a wine from the same vineyard: same harvest date, same maceration, fermentation, and other wine making techniques, but 100 cases from hand harvested grapes and another 100 cases from grapes harvested by machine. If that were to happen we could taste the wines and compare their quality. In the end, when tasted blind, would we all prefer the hand harvested wine? It would be an interesting experiment. I think DRC should do it and invite me...

So maybe the more relevant question is really about the character of wine. Does machine harvesting change the character of wine? It is hard to make generalizations because there are so many other factors that some into play. Generally speaking though, shouldn't wine made from hand harvested fruit be more pure, as there is no detritus mixed in with the grapes? Shouldn't these wines also be less tannic (before the wood barrel decision, anyway), as the excessive skin contact due to broken grapes can be avoided?

Do I prefer wine made from hand harvested grapes? I don't know. But I think of this issue the way I think about recycling, natural yeasts, sustainable agriculture, and other things that seem healthy to me. I just assume that hand harvesting is better and that the wines are better. I have no doubt that many people could explain why I am wrong. But I'm going to bet that none of those people would prefer Roumier to use a machine to havest his parcel of Musigny. Or the Grand Cru vineyards in Champagne. And not just the high end stuff - they wouldn't want Closel's portion of the Papillon vineyard to be machine harvested either.

I wanted to approximate the experiment I imagined above by tasting similar wines, one made from hand harvested grapes, the other made from machine harvested grapes. Approximate is the key word here folks, this is only an approximation. So put away your fine-toothed comb.

Recently BrooklynLady and I tasted two Chinons, two bottles of each wine, from the 2005 vintage by Jacques Grosbois. We should have tasted them blind, but didn't. Here, according to the producer, are the technical specifications that they share: sandy soil with some clay, southern exposure, "lutte raisonee," or sustainable agriculture, yields of 40 hl/hectare, sorting table, total de-stemming, 2-3 day pre-fermentation maceration, aging in concrete tanks.

Here are the specifications that differ: the 2005 Grosbois Chinon comes from vines averaging 35 years old. The 2005 Grosbois Chinon Vieille Vignes comes from vines averaging 60 years old. The VV has a 10 day fermentation and a 6 day post-fermentation (?), and the regular Chinon ferments for 12 days and a 3 day post-fermentation. The VV is hand harvested and the other is machine harvested.

We both preferred the VV by a long shot (although honestly, neither was very impressive). In fact, BrooklynLady flat out didn't like the regular Chinon, finding the palate to be dominated by tomato paste. It was inky black wine, it had some potting soil nuances, and it was thick and concentrated. It improved overnight a bit, and showed some graphite, smoke, and some meatiness, but still intense potting soil and ketchup.

The VV was a more "normal" color for Chinon, a deep but transparent ruby. This was a dark fruit driven wine with some tobacco hints, and a graphite finish. It did not change in any significant way overnight. It had the medium bodied texture and slight vegetal-ness that you would expect from Chinon. Although it is not one of my favorites from Chinon, it was a clean and pleasant wine, if not all that complex.

So what did I learn from all of this? There is something to hand harvesting, but I need it explained to me in a deeper way, and I probably need to participate in a better designed tasting experiment. But like with most things, it's probably good to challenge myself about my preconceived notions. I no longer assume that the label "organic" on food indicates much about quality, for example. I found that eating local is actually more important to me. Maybe machine harvesting really doesn't have to change the character (or quality) of wine, and it is just a simple matter of technology aiding in production.

Thoughts? Share 'em if you got 'em.


Joe said...

DRC sent me an email asking how to get in touch with BKG - they want to fly you out (first class) to Burgundy to see if the hand harvesting is ok. ;)

Anonymous said...

Interesting experiment. I do wonder however if the dominant variable in your test is older vines rather than hand-vs-machine picked. Another difference may come from the quantity of new-versus-old oak in both wines.

I think another interesting angle with hand harvesting is the affinity various areas around the world have with either hands or machines. I wonder what the proportion of machine-vs-manual is in the US where employing in the vineyard is probably one of the cheapest.

Lyle Fass said...

Pretty much the best way to do this experiment is with Muscadet. Taste some crappy bottle . . . say Jean Sauvion (Wine Wizard of the Loire!) versus some real soulful stuff like Olliver, Luneau-Papin and/or Bossard and the difference shines. Most of Muscadet is machine-harvested so the hand-picked ones are of much better quality.

Brooklynguy said...

hi joe - hope you had fun in NYC. seems like you dug the pizza at least. thanks for sending DRC my way, but it doesn't have to be first class, honestly.

hi christian - i agree with you re old vines as the dominant variable. neither wine saw any oak though, as far as i can tell from the producer's notes. this is not an easy test to do because it is impossible to control for all of the variables without a grower and a producer being a willing participant in the experiment.and yup, i would guess that there are very few spots in the US where harvest is manual. we like machines.thanks for your thoughtful comments.

hey lyle - suits me - i love the three you mentioned. wait - is bossard making dom. louvetrie, or is that someone else? i like those wines, whoever that is. never seen sauvion though. i'll keep my eyes open, and thanks.

Anonymous said...

An experienced person would be able to exercise much more discretion when selecting grapes for harvest than any machine. I don't think I've heard anyone extol the virtues of machine harvesting--its advantage seems strictly economic.

Wicker Parker said...

I've read that machine harvesting negatively affects both drainage and oxygen distribution, as the soil gets compacted.

There are variables, of course. Whereas harvesting might involve but one tractor trip per year, tilling requires still more passes through the vineyard, and application of herbicides still more (if not done via plane). And how sensitive is the soil to begin with, and how deep to the roots plunge?

When just considering harvesting alone, I should think that rigorous triage would overcome some if not most of the flaws possible in machine-harvested crops. But that's reducing a negative, whereas manual harvesting can enhance the positives from the crop -- selecting the right bunches at the right time, for example -- especially if taking multiple passes through the vineyard.

I'm not a grape grower, so what do I know... But it's my impression that for these reasons and others, hand-harvesting organically or biodynamically grown grapes is apt to lead to higher quality wine.

Brooklynguy said...

hey steve - yup, pure economics at work. but can it be done without sacrificing quality?

hi mike - you know, i hadn't even thought of that, the idea that the heavy equipment needed for machine harvesting actually compresses the soil in an unnatural way. agree with everything else you said, makes a lot of sense. thanks for stopping by

David McDuff said...

Hey Neil,
Mike/Wicker's comments are very well put. For further discussion on the impact of machinery on the soil, you might want to revisit my post on Domaine Barmes-Buecher.

If there's a positive to the option of machine harvesting that hasn't been brought up here, it's quickness. In a growing area where the weather tends to turn sour at harvest time, machine harvesting can increase the chance of getting most or all of one's fruit in before the rain, hail, frost, etc., starts. Otherwise, the merits of hand harvesting certainly outweigh the convenience and economic advantage of machination.

As to the strange color and aromas of the regular Grosbois Chinon you tried, your description leads me to think the bottle was most likely heat damaged.

Brooklynguy said...

We had two bottles and they were both like that, although they did come from the same source, so they could easily both have been damaged. Thing is though, cork was below the rim on both, and there was no seepage or anything.