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.

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