When we casually open a bottle of wine on an evening or a weekend, we have little sense of the severely practical decisions which had to be made for our pleasure. Our biggest concern might be to twist the screw cap or to find the corkscrew. By contrast there are dozens, even hundreds of decisions the producer will take before the great moment when the grapes finally are brought into the winery and wine can be made. And even then there some severely practical matters to be sorted.
I have had the good fortune to be in Italy for the last couple of weeks to follow the harvest. Of course this trip had to be planned months ago but by any reasonable guess, the second and third weeks of September are going to see picking in some part of Tuscany – earlier on the coast, later in the coolest and highest parts of the region. But in contrast to our summer, the weather has been very poor this season in northern and central Italy. The spring was cool and wet, the rain continued into July. August was more normal but then rain and unsettled weather returned in mid September. So the first decision to be made was when to pick. In coastal Tuscany you can easily reach sugar levels which will give you 12.5-13% alcohol in a ‘poor’ year but acidity may be high and the skins and pips of red grapes will not really ripe. So you can pick at this point and make the case for an old-fashioned elegant vintage, wines which will keep because of their acidity but may need time. Or you can take the chance that the grapes will ripen a bit more if the rain is only intermittent. The threat is that the grapes may just rot on the vine if the rain sets in. Incidentally, this is one of the appeals of the Cabernet and Merlot blends which go into the wines we call Super Tuscans. Both these grapes are more thick-skinned and less prone to rot than the native Sangiovese.
Most wine drinkers will know about the crucial issue of when to pick. Being present makes you much more aware of the basic organisational issues. Have you got the right number of pickers lined up for the harvest and can you keep hold of them if they have to be laid off regularly when it rains? Where are you going to do the vital work of selection which ensures the consistent quality of a wine – in the vineyard? before you crush the grapes? before or after de-stemming? And simplest, and most basic of all, do you have the right size and number of containers ready to process the volume of grapes you have picked? These are some of the mundane issues in theory. What happens in practice?
Within the course of a few days of observation the issue about how you select only ripe, healthy grapes was clearly demonstrated. At one end of the scale, on a tiny, artisan, estate it was clear that the home team of four, supplemented by three regular harvest workers, picked every bunch by hand and, critically, removed, swiftly, a substantial proportion of rotten or underripe grapes, perhaps 20% overall all, in the vineyard. This is a massive sacrifice but will undoubtedly mean that the wine from this ‘difficult’ year will still be of a high quality. In a second winery, also hand picked, the selection at the point of destemming was decidedly erratic. While the chief winemaker was present, bunches with some green under-ripe grapes did not go into the production but they did when the winemaker was not there. Of course the vast majority of grapes were healthy, but even so there will be a drop in quality.
Most intriguing of all was a much larger, more prestigious winery which processed both handpicked and machine-harvested grapes in the course of an hour’s observation. The former produced really high quality Syrah berries (and juice – I tasted it) while the latter saw quite few (perhaps 10%) off-red or greenish Sangiovese berries go into the young wine … These two wines were probably going to be blended and so the decision may have been: we know the Syrah is really ripe and the Sangiovese is reasonably ripe, let’s cut our losses, pick and blend. And there was more rain forecast for the next week.
Finally, there were comical and less comical sights to be seen with regard to equipment. One small producer had put a single varietal wine into a medium sized container only to find that the total harvest was far smaller than had been predicted. Rather than wasting the container which would be useful for other lots, the one-day old juice had to be moved to a more suitable container. As this was in a tiny winery, that was a job they could really have done without, but it was accepted with good humour. At a medium sized winery which had specialised in small lots of high quality wine, the problems of rapid expansion were all to clear. Asked to produce a significant size order on the back of that reputation, they really struggled in a practical way. The volume of destemmed grapes and its liquid was far to large for the standard pump to lift berries and juice out of the simple, open-topped containers in which they arrived. This led to an hour and a half of Heath Robinson-like creativity. A larger-capacity pump was attached to a pallet which was then strapped to a forklift truck to achieve the necessary height to do the trick. If this winery is going to expand they need proper tipping equipment, elevated conveyer belts for grapes and more. And the pressure was on as there were still 35 pickers in the vineyards picking yet more fruit which had to be processed on that day. Stressful stuff. So when you next crack open a bottle of wine from a small or medium-sized winery, spare a thought for the practical and unglamorous work which has gone into it.