Harvesting Wine in Bordeaux
September marks the beginning of the grape-picking season in Bordeaux, when the hard work of the previous year comes to a head. I was lucky to experience for a few days what its like to be a winemaker and realised the huge amount of work and very long days that go in to making wine.
Predicting the date when the harvest will begin is impossible, with the grapes being closely monitored from late August by the winemaker and the local Oenologue who is able to determine when the grapes have reached their peak ripeness. The decision is crucial as it determines the style and character of the wine and allows the winemaker to produce the wine in their preferred style. The winemaker meticulously monitors the levels of sugar and acidity inside the grapes, with the amount of tannins also playing an important role in determining the harvest of red wines. Where several varieties of grapes are grown, harvests will take place on different dates as the grapes don’t ripen at exactly the same time; white wine grapes are picked before red wines and Merlot is picked before Cabernet Sauvignon.
Driving through the winding roads of Bordeaux, it’s clear to see when the harvest season has arrived with the roads being taken over by tractors, busy carrying crates of grapes to the presses and the vines being filled with armies of people carrying out harvests by hand. Our grapes were ready late one afternoon, with a rush ensuing to book the necessary machinery for early the following morning.
And in the dark, cold morning, the 5am alarm went off and the long day of work began. The vines were harvested by a Harvesting Machine with huge bright beam lights, making its way up and down the rows while the picking tables were prepared and everything was thoroughly cleaned.
Harvesting during the night ensures cool fruit which is easier to control during the fermentation process, while the Machine Harvester harvests the grapes quickly and efficiently. Daytime temperatures can change the sugar composition of the grapes, so it’s a race against time to sort the grapes, while covering them with dry ice to keep the temperatures low and prevent them from beginning their fermentation process early.
The grapes are fed onto a conveyor belt manned with people on either side ready to remove the unwanted grapes, twigs and insects, which gives the wine less rustic aromas. Manual destemming helps the grapes to remain intact, holds back oxygenation and retains freshness. Approximately 220 grapes are needed for a 75cl bottle of wine so the process takes a long few days of achey feet to complete.
The winemaker determines whether the grapes are then crushed or the skins just slightly broken, or the whole grape fermented. It’s becoming increasingly popular to ferment the whole grapes to reduce the risk of oxidation. The resulting juice or skin mixture is moved into temperature controlled stainless steel fermentation vats where yeasts begin to turn the sugars into alcohol at carefully controlled temperatures for around 8 to 10 days. A secondary fermentation process then takes place before the wines can be blended by around January or February with bottling taking place around 2 years after the wines are harvested.
As the harvest comes to a close, the vines are looking bare and the winemakers hoping that winter temperatures don’t dip too low as they begin to prepare for the year ahead.
And I now appreciate every sip knowing how much hard work goes in to producing each bottle of wine.