Sunday, 13 August 2017

Harvesting at Grupo Estévez

Times have changed. Hundreds of people - mostly women, as the men were working in construction during the better years – used to form teams of pickers and arrived at the vineyards at dawn armed with knives or clippers. It was a long, hard job with pauses only to eat. Now the machines have taken over and there is barely a trace of the harvesting teams of old, who are now only needed in vineyards with difficult access for the machines or which contain old vines which have not been planted in a suitable way for machine harvesting.  This requires the rows of vines to be spaced to allow the passage of the machine and the vines to be trained on trellises at a certain height. The timetable has been reversed with the machines starting at ten at night and finishing at seven in the morning.

When darkness falls and while most people are sleeping the machines get to work, equipped with powerful headlights, cameras and various sensors so every detail of the ground is visible. Working at night has several advantages. It is better for the machines and their drivers to work at 22° than at 37° and the lower nocturnal temperature delays oxidation of the grapes or even premature fermentation. In the early days of machine harvesting much damage was caused to the vines which shortened their lifespan, but technology has moved on and machines are now more efficient and much faster than people.

Harvesting with Jerez in the background (foto:Manuel Aranda/diariodejerez)

Grupo Estévez is using a total of nine machines to cover their nearly 800 hectares of vineyard. Each one is different and adjusted for different vineyards but they function in much the same way. On the upper part there are two hoppers which collect the grapes, while on the lower part vibrating devices shake the grapes off the vine and collect them on a tray fitted with an elevator which takes them to the hoppers. There are powerful fans which blow away any dust, twigs or leaves. The process is fast and efficient but with all the shaking there can be a little loss of juice, and this calls for equally efficient transport to get the grapes to the bodega as quickly as possible. 80% of the company’s grapes are now harvested by machine.

Experts agree that no two harvests are the same; all sorts of factors affect the quality of the grapes, be they related to the climate, weather or environmental conditions. This year they look very good, and if they look good they usually are good. This year Estévez is predicting a 20-25% higher yield than last year, and of better quality. Eduardo Ojeda, the firm’s technical director reckons that the grapes are at about 12-12.5° Beaumé, almost two degrees higher than the regulatory minimum of 10.5°, which will of course require less fortifying spirit.

According to the Consejo Regulador, the harvest is inherently about logistics in which the efficiency of organisation will have both technical and financial consequences. In terms of costs machines are cheaper. Each one does the job of 100 pickers, and other processes are increasingly mechanised. In fact Estévez is only using 40 people for the harvest including truck drivers, machine operators and foremen. It requires only three people to maintain and operate each machine, taking turns during the working night, after which they need to degrease, disinfect and clean the machine ready for the next job. Since they cost 116,000 – 200,000 euros, maintenance of the machines is vital. They are hired, and the price is calculated in function of the area of land they will cover and the weight of grapes they will collect. Meanwhile the hand picking will start at the beginning of next week.

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