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Jefford on Monday: The Nocturnal Ballet

Across the southern hemisphere’s winelands, harvesting machines are being fine-tuned in readiness for the three months of frenzied activity which redeems their nine months of idleness.

harvester

Indeed the first machines will already be clattering up and down the rows, shaking off another season’s fruit. Forget those communal meals, that backache and the post-harvest festival. The modern wine harvest is a nocturnal ballet: giant glowworms, scattered randomly through the darkness, slowly munching their way up and down the rows as the small hours tick by. 

When I was living in Australia, I had many lively discussions about the merits or otherwise of machine harvesting. I found myself having them again recently – in France.

Around 95 per cent of the vineyards in Chablis are now machine-harvested, Premiers Crus and Grands Crus included. “There’s no more debate about it any more,” claims Jean-François Bordet, soon to be President of the Commission Chablis. “It’s just a personal choice.” This horrifies Burgundian colleagues further south, but most of those I spoke to recently in Chablis are unrepentant. “We harvest some Grands Crus by machine, and some basic Chablis by hand,” points out Benoît Droin. “It all depends on the site. We now have 25 years experience of machine-harvesting, and I’m ready to say loudly and clearly that it doesn’t have any negative effects on quality, except for pressing. You don’t have the draining effect you get with whole bunches, so you have to be very skilled at pressing. But apart from that, quality is fine.”  Droin says it would be different if Chablis was a red-wine region (where skin quality is paramount), and it would even be different if Chablis didn’t go through malolactic fermentation. “We’re not looking for tertiary aromas in Chablis, not primary fruit aromas or secondary fermentative aromas. If I was making Sauvignon Blanc, it would be different, too. But for what we are trying to create, it works.” 

There are, of course, practical difficulties with human harvesters. “We start with 60 pickers,” sighs François Servin, “and we finish with less than 30. About eight never turn up.  If it rains, you lose four more. If a vineyard is steep, another four quit. And so on …” Nonetheless he persists in hand-harvesting for his Grands Crus and some of his Premiers Crus. “We have no big towns nearby. It’s hard to find harvesters,” laments Didier Defaix, who machine harvests the whole of his 27-ha organic Chablis domain (called Bernard Defaix). He and his wife, though, also have a domain in Rully which is entirely hand-harvested (Domaine Jaeger-Defaix). “I can’t objectively say there is any difference between the Rully whites and our Chablis based on harvesting method.”

For all that, what most would agree are the three finest domains in Chablis, those of the Raveneau family, of Vincent Dauvissat and of William Fèvre, all continue to hand-harvest (though Fèvre uses machines to pick Petit Chablis). “It’s not true that you can’t find pickers here,” says Didier Séguier of William Fèvre. “It’s actually harder in the Côte d’Or. So many people have switched to machines in the Yonne that there are plenty of people who want to pick but don’t have the chance.” He’s emphatic that Grands Crus and Premiers Crus should be hand-harvested: “machine harvesting muddies the difference between terroirs.”

What’s the truth? Economics governs everything (in Chablis, for example, hand-harvesting is three times as expensive as machine-harvesting), and if consumers won’t pay more, then producers must use machines. The quality of machines, too, is improving all the time (the best now fruit-sort). I can’t deny that Droin and Defaix produce delicious Chablis. Extend the debate to non-European wine-growing regions, and further factors come into play. Skin quality is often more robust in areas with lower humidities than are typical in Europe. If the harvest weather is sweltering, the fact that machines can be used instantly and during the cooler hours of darkness bring evident quality advantages over tardy picking in the heat of the day.

For all that, I still feel that, if economics permits it, hand-harvesting is better for quality than machine harvesting. This is even true for white wines where developed characteristics, and vinosity rather than fruit, is the desideratum.  And any great red-wine region where machine harvesting is the norm must be letting some of its quality potential slip away. Gentleness of handling is, with fastidious fruit sorting, the major technical reason why (to take a different example) contemporary Bordeaux has a sumptuousness of texture and an aromatic finesse which were unattainable in the past. I suspect the glowworms haven’t quite won yet.

Jefford on Monday

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Award-winning writer Andrew Jefford's Monday column on Decanter.com

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