An Ode to Harvest: What is it?

Nick Willcock March 30, 2021

All Saints Estate vintage 2020. Wine Brothers HK

All Saints Estate vintage, 2020. Rutherglen, Victoria.

Every winemaker looks towards harvest: the exciting time of year when grapes enter the winery and the winemaking begins. For Australian wines, the harvest is at the end of the summer, usually between February and April. It all depends on the grape variety and the style of wine they want to create.

Wine grapes are once a year fruits. Over the winter, the vines look lifeless with only wood showing, and then through the spring they come to life with green vines and leaves. Fruits ripen and become the wine grapes we all love throughout the summer - the longer the ripening process the more sugars develop inside the grape.  

Can grape growers produce more than one crop a year?

All Saints Estate Vintage. Rutherglen, Victoria.

Not with great success in the wine growing regions of Australia, as the cooler winter months actually allow the vines to rest which leads to longevity of the plant and better quality grapes. Some countries, like India, can occasionally produce a ‘double harvest’, but for our Aussie wines when the bottle says 2021 we know it’s from around this time of year - and for the winemakers and grape growers once a year is enough work and stress anyway!

Anyone who has looked for casual work in Adelaide in January can tell that harvest is approaching: with the huge amount of seasonal fruit-picking jobs popping up all over job sites. Some vineyards are entirely mechanised for the harvest whilst others still pick by hand - and because Australia is such a huge country with a relatively small population, globetrotting backpackers are now being hired to help at the harvest.

When is the right time to pick the grapes?

Picking grapes. All Saints Estate vintage | Wine Brothers HK

All Saints Estate picked grapes. Rutherglen, Victoria.

Grape pickers have early starts and sometimes long days, and deciding when the perfect time to mobilise an army of pickers is all part of the challenge. Too early and the grapes might not be ripe enough, too late and they may become too ripe, almost jammy. Style also dictates when the first grapes are picked, for example, a Prosecco made from the King Valley will be picked early for higher acidity and freshness, and a grenache ripens late in the season so will be picked last. It can take around 100 days to ripen a grape after bud burst, when the small buds on a wine open and begin to create flowers that eventually become grapes.

But how do we know when the time is right? Some winemakers use devices to check the chemical composition of the grapes (sugars, acids, water content). This is crucial as the sugar is consumed by yeast which creates alcohol, so the more sugar the more alcohol, whilst acid gives a freshness to wines - wines are all about balance. For example winemakers in McLaren Vale make big bold reds that are in great balance.
While some look at high alcohol levels and assume a jammy-alcohol bomb, the wines actually maintain great acidity thanks to cool nights. If they picked too early to limit the sugar, and hence the alcohol content, flavours would be less ripe, with acidity and alcohol out of balance. It’s truly a blend of art and science.

How are natural wine grapes picked?

Whistler Wine - natural wine harvest | Wine Brothers HK

Whistler Wines produce Australian natural wines. Barossa Valley, South Australia.

Biodynamic producers, such as our friends at Whistler, will look for both ripe fruit and also keep an eye on the Lunar Calendar. Different days are better for fruits to be picked as the grapes have been grown for the entire season with a holistic approach between the earth, the land and the stars. And of course, many winemakers simply let their taste test tell them if the grapes are ready - they pick a grape, take a bite and let years of experience tell them if this is the day to make some magic.

Picking in the cool of night or early morning is preferred because the low temperatures slow the oxidation of grapes, which can lead to their spoilage. Bright halogen lights over tractors march throughout the vineyards in the dead of night, shaking the vines so the grapes drop into buckets below. Hand harvesting at night is near impossible, so early morning is the time to wrangle sometimes hundreds of workers. It’s cool, where the pickers’ breath form little clouds as the sun rises, allowing this incredibly beautiful and nostalgic way of collecting grapes to take place. It’s slow, romantic and preferred by nearly all premium producers.

Do winemakers actually handpick all the grapes?

Rouleur Wine Co., handpicked grape harvest | Wine Brothers HK

Matt from Rouleur Wine Co. Yarra Valley & McLaren Vale, Victoria

Hand picking is a slow but beautiful process as the best grapes are chosen by skilled hands. A winemaker did once confide in my that despite the romantic nature of working amongst the vines, in one vintage he had to deal with a few rowdy backpacker lads who decided the best use of grapes was to throw them at the pretty girls they fancied a few vine rows away - they were swiftly informed this isn’t the best use of chardonnay. Harvest is that culmination of months of work getting the grapes just right. Much like a duck paddling across a lake - a flurry of motion below the water which makes all movements look graceful and deliberate.

Rise from the ashes, Australia.

Rouleur Wines | Wine Brothers HK

Rouleur Wine Co. vineyard. McLaren Vale, Victoria.

2021 will be an interesting vintage - bushfires in early 2020, a global crisis and wavering demand of Aussie wines abroad. But whether it’s from tractors slowly shaking vine trunks or backpackers throwing grapes at girls they fancy, every harvest ends with the team opening some wines, and cheersing a job well done.

When to pick is only one of the hundreds of small decisions awaiting winemakers - how are the grapes to be fermented? Do we filter? What temperatures do we use? How do we make the best wine out of these grapes, and what will wines of this vintage be?

At the end of the day the barbecue gets fired up, everyone cracks open a cold one and talks about the year that was, and what wines will be made.

Great wines come from great grapes - and harvest is where the magic begins.