Hand harvesting fruit is one of those subjects in winemaking that gets tempers flaring. There is an assumption that hand harvesting is always better: it certainly costs more. Picking by hand will cost something like $300/T, whereas machine harvesting could be as low as $50/T. So why hand pick? Here are the four most important reasons.

  1. Old vines. Those classic gnarly old vines that crop up as standard shots in every wine country brochure cannot be machine harvested. The trunks are generally too twisted and brittle to survive the shaking of the machine. The old vines also tend to harbour all sorts of fungal diseases that would be spread by the cuts and abrasions that the machines invariably cause.
  2. Steep slopes. Mechanical harvesters are tall beasts that straddle the rows and shake off the fruit. They have a high centre of gravity and are dangerous to operate on steep slopes. As sloping vineyards are amongst the best sites for vines, there is a natural mismatch.
  3. The Law. There is nothing a French bureaucrat likes more than banning something. Machine harvesters are strictly forbidden in some French appellations and in some places the vignerons actually obey the law, sometimes.
  4. Winemaking choice. Hand harvesting white fruit makes for whole bunches, and whole bunches can be whole-bunch-pressed. This is a particularly slow and gentle method that results in really clean juice with low phenolics. It is often possible to ferment this juice with only the briefest of settling periods. This is ideal for top quality Chardonnay, Marsanne and the like and absolutely essential for making the best sparkling wines.