January 20 2022
The harvest: how to collect the grapes to make the best wines
In all the wine regions of the world, the harvest season is experienced with bustling and excitement. Winegrowers double their working hours in the vineyard to obtain the best return from the effort they have dedicated to the vine’s cultivation throughout the year. They often work side by side with outsiders who show up at harvest times to lend a hand and earn their living. In the wineries, the activity is non-stop: day and night, the vans enter to unload the grapes and go out for more, while the teams in charge of selecting the best grapes –usually made up of women, who are more uncompromising with the quality of the grapes– sharpen their eye. In the taverns, the locals entertain themselves by speculating on the generosity of the harvest, comparing it with the previous ones in a debate that will not be concluded until the harvest is over and the wines begin to show their true stock.
Festivals at harvest time
In many of these villages where the harvest is celebrated with such passion and intensity, the town halls, neighborhood associations, and other official institutions –or spontaneous groups of friends– organize festivals that celebrate the collection of the grape. Some of the festivals have a more pagan than religious component, but all demonstrate the cultural roots of wine beyond its importance as an economic activity.
The celebration of the harvest is not something new. It is a tradition that goes back to the very origin of this beverage. Even in ancient Egypt, the time of the grape harvest was a social, religious, and cultural event in which the figure of Osiris was venerated, the god to whom the creation of wine was attributed and, therefore, the one who deserved all kinds of offerings. Also, the Greeks and Romans gave the harvest a festive and religious relevance, paying homage to Dionysus and Bacchus, respectively.
In fact, the Spanish term "vendimia" (“grape harvest”) comes from the Latin vindemia, with a fairly clear etymology: to pluck (demere) the fruit of the vineyard (vinea).
Harvesting is much more than the process of collecting the grapes; harvest season is a time of celebration that is deeply rooted with wine culture.
The harvest – from the vineyard to the winery
And although from Roman times until today there has indeed been evolution, the truth is that the process itself, from the time the grape is harvested until the winemaking process begins, remains the same. With the exception that, currently, the winegrowers have the support of technology – something which allows the processes to be sped up (tractors, vans to move the grapes faster to the winery, automatic selection tables, mechanical or pneumatic presses, etc.) and to obtain better yields for the quality of the grapes.
The basic processes of the harvest are the following:
In the Southern hemisphere, it takes place between January and March; in the North, between August and October (with exceptions). The harvest can be manual or machine assisted (through the use of harvesters amongst long rows of vineyards with a wide separation between each one to allow for the passage of the machines), although for the best wines the bunches are collected by hand in order to discard at that time those that are not in optimal conditions (not ripe, damaged, etc.). In some areas, a night harvest is also carried out to save the grapes from the effects of heat and early fermentation.
Transfer of the bunches of grapes to the winery is done in the shortest possible time, in boxes of 15 Kg each, so as to keep the product from being damaged. If there is a long distance between the vineyard and the winery, a refrigerated means of transport is usually used.
Once in the winery, the grapes undergo a new selection process and are left in the “reception hopper,” a kind of funnel where the fruit is analyzed to verify its health status, sugars, and pH.
The crushing machine presses the grapes, doing so without breaking the seeds or shredding the skins so that they do not contaminate the must. Transfer to the presses takes place, avoiding contact with oxygen so as to prevent the start of fermentation.
The harvest start date and method are important for the quality of the wine to be made.
The start date of the harvest – a key factor
In any event, the harvest does not begin until the grapes have reached their optimum degree of ripeness. This is a key factor that will determine the characteristics and quality of the wine to be produced. Hence, it is the master winemaker at the winery (or his or her technical manager) who decides the appropriate time to start the harvest of the grapes, doing so after exhaustive monitoring of their evolution. This monitoring includes tastings, technical analyses, and laboratory tests in order to verify the degree of ripening. The aim is to harvest a healthy grape with an optimal concentration of sugars, tannins, acids, and other natural components that will define the characteristics of the wine (when it completes its vinification and aging process).
The choice of the most convenient day to start the harvest is related to the type of wine to be produced: it is not the same to make a cava, which requires high levels of acidity, as a red wine. This is also related, of course, with the conditions of each grape variety, those of each wine region, and those of each microclimate and each vineyard plot – taking into account the exact location (latitude, altitude, exposure). Of course, the weather circumstances of the vintage are a fundamental factor that can modify the harvest plans in a crucial way. And, finally, there is also a bit of personal risk in terms of the card that the winemakers play when deciding the exact time for the harvest. This is because, just as there are those who prefer to collect the grape when it still preserves a certain fruity freshness, there are others who wait for more resounding ripeness. In the end, it’s a matter of styles.