Bonjour, and welcome to today’s episode of “Howdaydodat”?
I spent part of last winter and all of this spring working in the vineyard here in Cournonterral. My experience with actual grapes actually growing had been previously limited to backyard trellises, and my experience of wine had been STRICTLY limited to the fun part, the bottoms-up part, so it was and continues to be a huge education.
(Fun French fact: to say “Bottoms up!” in French, you would say “Cul sec!” (kew sek) which means: dry (“sec”) bottom (“cul”). “Sante” is also common, which just means “Health” and is a shortened version of the proper toast which is “A votre sante”, or, “To your health!” Can’t remember either of those? You can also just say “Chin-chin”, imitating the sound of two glasses clinking together.)
Winter, all I did was pruning back the vines; the idea is to leave one (or two) long branches attached the the stump, and remove all the rest. That long branch, later in the spring, will then be wound around the wire and anchored in place (usually by a staple) to support all the growth that will happen later. A lot of spring was actually just that – training vines to grow to the wire. The younger plants needed sticks of bamboo planted alongside, and as the vine began to grow, you go through and wind each vine around the bamboo, getting it to grow up (instead of flopping on the ground where the machines and harvesters can’t do very much with it except run it over.)
Here’s the basic idea with using a trellis, or a wire, to grow grapes: you want to control a grape vine’s canopy which will influence not only the potential yield of that year’s crop but also the quality of the grapes due to the access of air and sunlight needed for the grapes to ripen fully and for preventing various grape diseases. Too much shade from the foliage or not enough air can not only cause the grapes not to ripen, but also encourages disease, fungus, etc.
Using an orderly trellis system also makes it easier for the mechanization of certain tasks, like spraying, pruning and especially harvesting. Keeping the fruit around chest height is also important ergonomically…your back really starts to ache if you are out in the vineyard bent over all day, as I found out this spring! There’s a lot that is considered when deciding the system for trellising, including wind – a really strong wind can take the fruit right off the vine.
Not everywhere uses the trellis. I’ve seen other styles of grape growing…there are grape growers that actually don’t use wire at all, on older vines. These are called “bush vines” and have a naturally lower yield since they are older plants; this is, believe it or not, a desirable thing, since a vine that overburdens itself with grapes just won’t be able to ripen all of them, no matter how much sunlight there is.
I’ve even seen, in Greece and the Canary Islands, vines that are allowed to flop on the ground like cucumber bushes. In the case of the Canary Islands, in Lanzarote, which was devastated by volcanic eruptions in the 1730s, it is again very different: all thje vines are planted in semi-circular depressions and kept low to the ground to protect against wind and to minimize evaporation.
Ironically the seemingly apocalyptic volcanic eruptions actually gave local farmers a helping hand. They soon discovered that they could use granules of volcanic rock (known as picon) as a type of porous mulch.
The picon absorbs moisture from the air, releases it into the ground and prevents evaporation. This enables a method of dry cultivation known as ‘enarenado’ which is completely unique to Lanzarote.
As a result local farmers could sidestep the problem of Lanzarote’s extremely low rainfall, which was obviously a major hurdle for any kind of crop cultivation.
The only down side to this method of cultivation for wine producers is that everything has to be done by hand.
The vine stocks are individually planted in craters dug to around a metre in depth. They are then covered in picon and protected further by the semi circular zocos. At harvest time all of the grapes are hand picked.
Whew, that was a lot of information. I think it’s time for a musical interlude. You want? Sure you do.
OK, so we are in harvest time right now. It actually started last week, and the guys are harvesting OTHER people’s grapes at the moment, starting with Muscato. Timing is pretty important, because under- or over-ripened grapes have a big impact on the taste of a wine. The essentially acidity can drop pretty quickly, and then at that point you would need to add acid later, which may or may not even be ALLOWED under regulations. So you want to pick your perfect moment and get the damn grapes off the vine as fast as possible.
Temperature makes a big difference here, too…because if you are picking too slowly, when the temperature is mid-day hot…well, you probably know what happens to bins of fruit sitting out in the sun cooking, right? Fermentation can start too early, or bacteria or molds can get started, and all those things have a big impact on the taste of wine, too. If you are using mechanized methods of harvest, this can result in bruised grapes with split skin, and the skin is a natural barrier to molds, so there is some disadvantage to that as well. For this reason, harvesting begins in the early hours of the morning in the dark, when temperatures are much cooler.
(I mean, there are exceptions to this. Champagne grapes are picked with a high acidity, as are grapes used for sweet wines. Noble ro, or botrytis cinerea, is a kind of fungus that is actually encouraged on some varieties of grapes as it concentrates the sugar and acidity and flavor of the wine, and some wines (ice wines, which are grown in Germany and upstate New York) are allowed to freeze solid and are then picked in the dead of night. Kind of cool, right?)
The advantage to using a machine however to harvest is pretty obvious: a large machine harvest crew is able to harvest as much as 200 tons in a shift. On the contrary, it typically takes 30 hand pickers to harvest 20 tons in a 10 hour shift. Disadvantages: they don’t discriminate against bunches of grapes that have rot and may need to be discarded. If your vineyard is terraced or on a steep hillside, or if your vineyard is muddy or waterlogged, the machines also cannot be used. In some regions, like in Champagne, the grapes are required to arrive at the winery intact, i.e not split, so the machines are not allowed. And apparently, some grapes have thicker skins then others, so that might be a consideration as well…like, pinot noir has a really thin skin.
A harvester works like this (yes, I had to look this up): Basically, it’s a tall machine that straddles the trellis and uses special fingers (or rods) to shake the grapes off the vine.
After the grapes have been shaken off the vine, the fruit lands on a catching tray, is collected by conveyor cups, and then transported to a cross conveyor that sits high at the rear of the machine. As the grapes drop onto the cross conveyor, two large fans pull out all of the light debris (such as leaves).
Then the grapes are transported to the discharge conveyor where they are screened by a third fan and by an inspector, who pulls out any foreign material (such as grape wood).
The fruit continues to move along the conveyor toward a trailer (catch bin) that travels in the row next to the harvester. Before the grapes enter the catch bin, the final screening is performed by a high power magnet, which removes any metal (wire or clips) that may have been caught by the picking rods.
Kind of fun, right? It’s all pretty interesting to me. One you start to get a sense of all the work and skill that goes into growing grapes for wine, you definitely taste wine differently. I’m excited to learn more about the actual wine-making process as time goes on too. I’ve always loved the stories of how things are made; it’s part of why I fell in love with glassblowing and also what fueled my interest in gardening and homesteady stuff like raising chickens and canning fruit and spinning wool and making cheese. Everything has a story, and the generation I grew up in has become really far removed from these stories…we have become trained to be Consumers, not producers, and to be dependant on big box stores and supermarkets to serve up prepackaged products, so far removed from their source.
That alone might be the subject for another post. Hell, it could be the subject of an entire library.