On stems and men: why we still harvest by hand
We usually start harvesting earlier - this year two to three weeks - than the neighbouring winemakers who are waiting for the right sugar content. (This year they were particularly inclined to think we're nuts, given the later vintage. Even I had my doubts at one point, when 40% of our crop was already in the cellar while our peers hadn't even washed the press and greased the snips yet. But seeing the good energy and vibrancy of our fermenting wines, I'm glad for that decision.)
One of the reasons for this early start is that the harvest takes us about 6 weeks – with some 24 hectares under production, we have to plan everything carefully so that none of our varieties and vineyards overripe. We are still harvesting by hand, one of the last in my area. I don't judge who harvests how, what is good and what is bad, it's just that this harvest made me think and realise why I personally prefer harvesting by hand.
The first reason is a rather nostalgic one. Vineyards without people are a sad sight. You see 6 harvesters that manage to harvest about 700 hectares of vineyards. But the social aspect of the vintage, the good cheer has disappeared from the vineyards. The second is that our grapes may not be quite perfect in some cases and years, so we sort them both in the vineyard and in the chateau. The harvesting machine can't do that.
I make winemaking decisions the moment I see the grape bunches, when I touch them. Depending on what I see and feel, we decide what they shall become. I can't do that with the berries that come in from the machine. One of the highlights of this year's harvest for me is the stem. Those of us who still pick by hand have the tremendous privilege of having a whole bunch, including the stem. It's an asset that machine harvesting has lost, as the stems are sadly left hanging on the vine.
Since we're still harvesting by hand, we are blessed by having the grapes whole and intact. The importance of stems is my big realisation of this harvest. We often used to remove it almost obsessively, fearful of getting some green notes or the wrong tannins into the wine. But after all, these are part of the wine, something that expands and builds its flavour layers and personality. It gives another dimension and complexity to the wine. We're working whole-bunch and simply this year, and I'm loving it (while our expensive destemmers are collecting dust in the corner, haha.
It shows us how we sometimes insist on ideas of what our wine should look like, what it should be similar to, or - god forbid - what it should be a copy of. When we get rid of this, we reach true freedom. It's nice to be free and have a choice. I'm thankful for that every day.
Will we ever harvest by machine in the future? I don't know. What I know is that we'll try to do it by hand for as long as we can. I believe we'll always find some willing and good hands.