Machine vs. Man
There is often a pre-conceived idea that only the best wines can be made from handpicked grapes, but this isn’t necessarily the case.
Some areas such as Champagne or Beaujolais have strict regulations stating that grape bunches must enter the winery whole, therefore the only way to do this is to handpick. The importance of whole bunches for both of these styles of wine is to do with the later stages that occur in the winery itself. In Beaujolais, this is in order to undergo carbonic maceration, for further details on this process visit the ‘winemaking’ section under the heading guides.
There are other situations that also require the grapes to be picked by hand, such as the steep slopes of Mosel, Alsace and the Douro valley. This requirement comes from the fact a machine wouldn’t physically be able to handle the slopes due to the intensity of the gradient in these areas. This, of course, leads to an increase in labour costs which can significantly push the price of the final bottle up.
Handpicking can be very useful when dealing with rot, whether this has been encouraged or not. Nobel rot is an important fungus used in the production of some of the worlds best sweet wines. The same fungus can also cause a detrimental issue known as grey rot, which no winemakers wants! When producing this ‘rotten’ style of sweet wine the best berries have to be carefully hand-picked. The grapes skin is much more delicate and can easily disintegrate. Also, only the best, most intense berries are required to produce the best more complex sweet wine.
Picking by machine can often be extremely beneficial to the quality of the wine. The ability to use a machine during the night or early morning hours means the grapes can be picked in the coolest conditions reducing the potential effects of oxidation which can negatively impact the final wine. The grapes can also be immediately flushed with sulphur dioxide. This chemical is used commonly throughout wineries as it prevents oxidation occurring and spoiling the wine. Although both oxidation and flushing with SO2 sound extremely technical both techniques are really common. Oxidation is simply a chemical breakdown due to oxygen which destroys the colour, flavour and aroma of the grapes, sulphur dioxide can prevent this occurring. Using a machine also speeds up the rate the grapes reach the winery, again potentially improving the final quality of the wine. Labour costs are also significantly reduced. Although the cost of buying or renting the machine can be very high, in large-scale wineries this is quickly recovered.
How does a machine actually pick the fruit I hear you ask! It's not technically picking but more a slapping or shaking movement. This harsh sounding movement doesn’t actually damage the vine or the grapes. The grapes drop off the vine into the collecting basket below. This does, however, mean MOG or ‘Matter Other than Grapes’ also enters the basket including twigs, leaves, and occasionally a few insects. These then have to be removed from the sorting table in the winery. The grapes are also more likely to become damaged realising some of the juice. This isn’t a big issue in the production of red wine as the tannins from the skins are kept in contact when fermenting the juice. However, for the production of white wine, it can be detrimental as it can result in a more bitter tasting wine.
The positives and negatives of each technique are widely discussed and each method has its benefits. Machines are faster and more cost-effective but can cause a small level of damage to the grapes. Picking by hand is required in some appellations and necessary in some of the steepest terrains. Both methods can be used to produce the best wines and it is far more dependent on the land itself rather than machine vs. man.