Thursday, 25 August 2016

Machine Harvesting

 Mechanisation is everywhere. It has stolen the romance of the vineyards where once merry bands of pickers chatted and sang, drinking water spouting from a botijo, while they laboured under the blistering sun. Now, since the 1960s, the roar and clatter of diesel engines has taken over as the machines have evolved into an efficient and economical means of collecting the harvest. They are very expensive though; similar in price to a mid-range Ferrari, so most are hired since they are only needed for two or three weeks a year.

It is not only the machines which have evolved, however; the vineyards themselves have had to be altered to suit them. They can’t be too steep or the top-heavy machines could topple, and excessive mud can immobilise them. Vine rows need to be planted at a suitable distance apart to allow room for the machine to pass, say 2.5 metres, and while the machines are adjustable, the vines themselves need to be allowed to grow to a suitable height so the bunches hang 60-100 cm from the ground. This requires training the vines on an espalier system rather than the traditional vara y pulgar of Jerez.

Harvesting machines straddle the rows of vines and use a series of floating, oscillating, soft-faced finger-like rods which shake the grapes from their stems into a tray which catches them, and a cup-conveyor takes them up to a collection hopper, where a powerful fan blows away any leaves. There is also a magnet which picks out any metallic objects such as bits of wire or clips from the espalier. When the hopper is full the grapes are discharged into a waiting trailer and taken to the bodega.

The machines move slowly, at about 3.5 km/hour. This is the optimum speed as moving faster or slower can cause damage to the vines, but it is much faster than hand picking with secateurs or knives. Machines can pick about 200 tons per day, where an experienced picker can pick perhaps 2 tons, and the machine is equally efficient at night, when humans have difficulty seeing. With hand picking, whole bunches are picked, and when they get to the bodega they need to go through a “despalilladora” or de-stemmer to remove the stems, which would otherwise make the wine more tannic.

Advantages of machine harvesting:

The latest machines are pretty sophisticated, and their sheer speed outweighs their disadvantages. Once the grapes are ripe enough for harvesting, machines can pick them much more quickly and thus avoid over-ripe grapes, giving a more homogeneous crop. If for example heavy rain is forecast, a machine can bring in the grapes quickly before they become diluted. The machine’s driver usually comes with the machine and is much less likely than the hand-pickers to go on strike, which has happened before. Then there is cost; machines work out much cheaper than hand pickers, especially in very big vineyards.


These machines are very heavy and have a tendency to compact the soil. They can’t differentiate between rotten grapes and healthy ones, they just pick everything. There is a risk of yeast build-up on machinery setting off premature fermentation, so careful and regular cleaning is necessary. The mechanical nature of the machine can potentially cause damage to the vines and the espalier system.

So there is no doubt that machines are here to stay, so long as the vineyards are suitable, as they are in the Marco de Jerez, and where nearly all the grapes are already  picked by machine. It will be a long time, however, before vineyards in, say, the Douro, Mosel or Málaga’s Axarquía will be picked mechanically, and I for one am pleased about that.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Manzanilla San León Reserva de Familia 15%, Argüeso

Lightish yellowy straw with golden highlights, legs.
Forthcoming Manzanilla Pasada nose with notes of esparto, dried flowers, salinity, beach and of course, flor. There are slight traces of nutty butteriness from autolysis which round off the previous notes and add depth to what is quite a complex and very sanluqueño nose.
A decent acidity carries the flavour through, tangy, bone dry, slightly yeasty and still with a trace of fruit.It has good presence on the palate and really good length.
Precisely when a Manzanilla becomes Pasada is up to individual judgement. There is no mention of "pasada" on the label, but this wine is close to that point, where Manzanilla becomes really interesting. For that reason for a long time it was kept for family use, but it is now the bodega's flagship Manzanilla.  It is very good, with its own personality, but sometimes hard to get - even from the bodega, in my experience (twice). It is aged for about eight years.
13.50 euros from Licores Corredera

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

23.8.16 Death of Antonio Páez Lobato; Harvest in Sanlúcar; Verema’s Best Sherries

The man who put Sherry vinegar on the map has passed away at the age of 93. From an early age he worked in his father’s despacho de vinos and later set up a cooperage, which is still working today, and from which he became involved in the wine and vinegar businesses. Bodegas Páez Morilla which he established in 1945 was to be a huge success, and it was the first time Sherry Vinegar became a commercial proposition. He began with his own solera “Los Palitos” and bought others, some of which were very old, from Williams & Humbert, Sandeman, Rafael O’Neale, González Byass and Alfonso Lacave Ruiz Tagle. No wonder he was known fondly as the “Vinegar King”; he virtually invented what is now a very important product for Jerez with its own DO. In the 1970s he bought vineyards and began producing table wines, the white Tierra Blanca and the red Viña Lucía crianza. Antonio’s son José bought what is now Bodegas Dios Baco in 1992. The Vinegar King had a roundabout named after him recently by Jerez City Council.

Antonio with vinegar in his own butts (foto:diariodejerez)

While the harvest is under way in the Jerez vineyards, those round Sanlúcar are still not ready. The two local cooperatives, Virgen de la Caridad and Covisan, reckon that picking will start at the end of August. The grapes are generally green and still contain high levels of acidity, and it is not yet time to take samples for the pies de cuba. The Levante wind, a feature of the 2016 vintage, has reduced the liquid content of the grapes, but despite widespread mildew in the coastal areas the surviving grapes are of excellent quality. The result will be a smaller crop.

Verema, the largest Spanish online wine community has chosen the best wines for the first half of 2016. Famous for its forums, this community numbers 47,000 enthusiasts and experts, so any wine chosen needs to be good. Their chosen Sherries in order of preference are as follows:

Manzanilla La Kika, Bodegas Yuste
Palo Cortado Wellington VOS, odegas Hidalgo la Gitana
Oloroso Añada 2003, Bodegas Williams & Humbert
La Bota de Manzanilla 55, Equipo Navazos
Fino Añada 2009, Bodegas Williams & Humbert

Monday, 22 August 2016

22.8.16 Jerez Pays Homage to Shakespeare

A special homage on the 400th anniversary of the bard’s death will take place at González Hontoria park in Jerez on the 3rd September. At the Shakespeare statue there will be a floral offering, readings of a selection of his work in both Spanish and English and a glass of Faustino González Sherry served by the Japanese venenciador, Momoko Izumi. Jerez will never forget how Shakespeare promoted Sherry (or sack as it was then) in his plays, and this is the XI annual homage to him. It would never have happened without the tireless work of the academic José Luis Jiménez.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Sherry Grapes Nearly All Picked by Machine

Those days when teams of pickers went off to the vineyards on Monday morning - many arriving by bus from other localities - and went off home again on Friday having spent the week nights at the vineyard, are now a thing of the past. They are a distant memory. Only a few dozen agricultural workers from the Jerez area still pick by hand with clippers or knives in the traditional way. Gone too are the days when the teams started at nine o-clock and finished at six having had an hour for lunch and two fifteen minute breaks for a bocadillo, or “tabaco” in local jargon.

The years of boom, or economic madness depending on one’s point of view, drained the countryside of men. It was the women who took on the harvest shifts while their menfolk earned much more in the booming construction business. Times changed, and the men returned, yet now there is barely a trace of them.

Harvesting machine in action (foto:diariodejerez)

Now the grapes are harvested by machines from ten o-clock at night till half past six or seven in the morning. It is more efficient to pick at night as “temperatures are ten to twelve degrees lower and there is much less evaporation of juice, which can add up to a great deal over the course of the harvest” says Benito Vidal, the man in charge of Barbadillo’s Santa Lucía vineyard in the north of the Sherry zone, close to the border with Sevilla. All 211 hectares will be harvested by machine except a few which are in an area dedicated to experimental vines. Santa Lucía provides grapes for Spain’s largest-selling white wine, Castillo de San Diego, and Manzanilla Solear.

The huge harvesting machines are hired out for harvests all over Spain and arrive on the trailers of articulated trucks. The harvester drivers need to be experts in handling them as they are responsible for the condition of the harvest. It is hard for them, working when everyone else is sleeping, and it strains the eyes trying to see in the darkness of the night, even with headlights. On this occasion the machines are working in daylight for the first day in order to pick sufficient grapes for the first fermentations or “pies de cuba”, some 100,000 kilos. This is achieved in only four hours, and once the fermentations have begun, the machines go back at night to continue their work.

Harvesting machine unloading grapes (foto:en.wikipedia)

These monster machines can cost 240,000€ each, but they are well equipped. The cabin has cameras connected to a computer screen which helps with all round visibility in this delicate work, and the steering system is such that this seriously heavy machine can turn through 180 degrees, very useful on narrow sandy country tracks. It straddles the rows of vines, can be raised and lowered according to their height and a vibrating mechanism removes the grapes and collects them in a hopper. The efficiency of the machines has developed greatly in recent decades. In the early days they were accused of damaging the vines and shortening their useful lives. Now they even have powerful fans which blow away bits of vine leaf caught among the grapes. They are so powerful that if not used carefully they can create clouds of dust when used to clean the machine after picking each row, making it temporarily difficult to see.

It will take roughly a week to pick the Santa Lucía vineyard. A team of four people will go out and pick by hand any bunches missed by the machine so as not to lose any fruit. This process is called “rebusco”. Once the hopper on the machine is full, it tips the grapes into a truck which takes them the 14 kilometres to the winery at Gibalbín. The base and sides of the truck are sealed with rubber so no precious juice is lost, and the old sight of grape trucks followed by a stream of juice is rarely seen any more.

The grapes being harvested come from strong young vines which give the finest quality fruit, and have largely managed to avoid the mildew outbreak. The man in charge, Benito Vidal, says that prevention is the best friend of the grower. Vine treatments have been successful and he proudly shows a bunch of grapes in perfect condition. “The vineyard has been well cared for, even pampered. These young vines were planted in 2009 and it was decided then that they would be harvested by machine.” Their destiny was decided seven years ago.

Typically, the harvest has started in the vineyards of the interior, and Santa Lucía is one of them. It is 22 kilometres from the sea yet the breeze can be felt, but here the sun blazes down on the white albariza soil ripening the grapes earlier than in the coastal vineyards. The first grapes picked gave sugar readings of up to 12ᴼ Beaumé, one and a half degrees above the minimum legal requirement, and perfect for the production of that most noble wine, Sherry.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

20.8.16 Estévez Invests in Equipment; Barbadillo Begins harvest

Grupo Estévez has invested 1.5 million euros in state of the art equipment to improve production processes in the bodega. The number of self-emptying tanks and pneumatic presses has been increased while the fermentation plant has been re-designed and equipped with the latest software technology to better control fermentation allowing an increased capacity of 7,000 butts.

The firm, which comprises Valdespino, Marqués del Real Tesoro and La Guita, owns 800 hectares of vineyard, 12% of all DO vineyards, making it the largest grower in the Sherry zone – and the largest in Andalucía. All this demonstrates the importance the firm attaches to the vineyard as a fundamental part of its philosophy of highlighting the origin and singularity of the land which is unique in the world. Estévez is the only bodega in the area to use raw materials which are 100% local, those being the grapes and the fortification alcohol, and the firm says that this is helping to achieve a sustainable agro-alimentary chain in which the vineyard is perfectly integrated and which, unlike other vineyards in the area, is profitable, and helping to improve the image of Sherry.

New fermentation tanks at Estevez (foto:diariodejerez)

Estévez says that this investment not only increases the daily capacity for grape reception, but also offers the opportunity to start the process of traceability from vineyard to wine by classifying the mostos by their individual vineyard and improving grape selection. The health and sugar content of the grapes are key parameters for their destiny and the price paid if they are bought in. New paving has also been installed to improve hygiene at the plant. “This technological development is in response to our exhaustive and demanding parameters of control to produce wines of exceptional quality, the benchmark of Sherry.

With reference to the harvest, they are expecting a harvest of very good quality but with smaller bunches than last year with each grape weighing slightly less. This, combined with the losses due to mildew in Sanlúcar and Trebujena in spring, will produce a total harvest about 10% down on that of last year.

Bodegas Barbadillo has begun the harvest and they foresee it finishing on 9th September. Thy say the quality is excellent with potential alcohol readings of 11.5ᴼ-12ᴼ, and are hoping the temperatures will relent and allow a normal ripening. The Barbadillo vineyards, which extend to 500 hectares, make the firm the second largest vineyard owner in the area, and they were thankfully spared the ravages of the mildew outbreak in spring.

Of the 11 million kilos they hope to pick, some 2½ million will come from their own vineyards, Santa Lucía and Gibalbín, while the rest will be bought in from 35 growers on continuing contracts in the best vineyards. The harvest is being collected both by hand and by machine. Mechanical harvesting takes place during the night and early morning, while hand picking is done in the morning. This way the grapes arrive cooler and more controllable, and it is more comfortable for the workers.

Chardonnay and Palomino grapes for the firm’s sparkling Beta Brut were picked at the end of July as well as the Sauvignon Blanc for Blanco de Blancos and Moscatel for the semi sparkling Vi. Merlot will be picked starting on Monday and the other red varieties, Tempranillo, Tintilla, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot will soon follow.

Friday, 19 August 2016

19.8.16 Osborne Open Toro Tapas

El Puerto de Santa María has a fantastic new bar offering Osborne Sherry and local gastronomy. Although it is an old converted bodega at Calle Los Moros, 7 next to the Osborne bodegas, it is spacious, well-lit and modern. It forms a part of Osborne’s planned wine tourism centre along with the Toro Gallery and the bodegas themselves. A collection of around 150 old Sherries adorns one wall and there is a patio and a tasting room which seats 20 people. Every kind of food from the province of Cádiz is available and the selection of Osborne wines is large as they produce not only Sherry but wines from other parts of Spain. The firm owns one of the best ham producers in the country: Cinco Jotas. At the bar one can buy some very rare Sherries by the glass, wines which sell at up to around 200 € a bottle or try a Sherry cocktail. Contact: 956 905 020