Montalcino / Op-ed

Op-Ed: We need to update harvest techniques, writes Stefano Cinelli Colombini

Click here for the original post in Italian on Pietro Stara’s excellent VinoeStoria blog.

montalcino harvest crates sangiovese

Above: Harvest at the Fattoria dei Barbi estate in the early twentieth century. Why are growers still using such antiquated techniques for harvest? asks Stefano.

The use of the best winemaking equipment during fermentation became common practice among Italian growers (aside from naturalists and otherwise reckless winemakers) decades ago.

The same can be said of vineyard work: Today, enologists and vineyard managers seem to be omnipresent.

It’s because of this that we generally have healthy grapes in the vineyards, expertly handled grapes in the cellar, and wine that makes it to bottling with the greatest of care.

Not even the greatest attention to detail or all the good intent in the world can avoid human error and ignorance. And so I ask myself: Is this enough to ensure quality? In my view, the answer is no because nearly everyone neglects an important step: The grapes’ trip to the cellar after being picked.

This is the moment when the grape is most vulnerable. As long as the berry is still attached to the plant, it’s part of a living organism (which helps to protect it from heat and from rot). And when it gets to the fermentation tank, it will be “covered” with CO2 and is thus protected.

But who protects the berries in the interval between these two phases of production, which can last for hours?

If you feel so inclined, try this experiment: Leave a grape bunch out in the sun and exposed to the heat of September for an hour and see what happens.

Unless they are grapes headed for the supermarket (which means they will have been heavily treated with anti-fermentative sprays and various chemicals), they will rot.

It’s important to remember that the grape berry is mostly liquid and this means that it begins to deteriorate rapidly once it begins dying (in other words, when it is picked).

And then, if you use the classic, traditional, old-school crates for harvest, the situation becomes even more complicated because practically no one has time to wash them.

As a result, at the end of the day, there will inevitably be some grape must at the bottom of those plastic crates. And during the night, it will begin to rot. After about two days, a smelly layer will develop and it will be rich with apiculate yeasts, precursors of vinegar and so forth.

It’s a real witch’s brew and when it comes into contact with the grapes, it ends up in the fermentation vats, bringing with it all kinds of crap.

How can this be avoided? The answer lies in looking more carefully and paying more attention to the harvest process.

The first thing to do is to reduce to a minimum the time between picking and the arrival of the grapes in the cellar.

How can this be done? By mechanizing the picking. Tradition crates can only be carried into the vineyard by workers and this requires a lot of time and labor costs.

Another reason they need to be abolished is that they always weigh more than 20 kilos and that means that, by law, they cannot be lifted by hand.

Everyone does it but in fact, this is against the law, a serious offense, especially when it results in an accident. We should only use plastic bins that are 1.2 meters by 1.2 meters, in other words, half as tall as the old crates. And this will help us to avoid crushing the fruit.

In the vineyards, we should use tractors with one bin mounted in the front and four more in the back. The operator will stack them one on top of the other as they are filled. Four workers will pick one row and four others will pick the next row. And when all five bins are filled, the tractor will head to the cellar with its load and will be substituted by another tractor. In the cellar, a forklift will take each bin and dump it into the hopper of the de-stemmer and then the bin will be quickly washed with water and metabisulfite. Then the tractor with the clean bins will head back to the vineyard.

How many workers will this require? Every team will be composed of 8 pickers, 2 tractor operators, 2 workers on the trailer, and 1 worker in the cellar. In total, 13 persons. A squad like this should be able to pick from 200 to 250 tons of grapes in one day at a cost comparable to machine harvesting.

The upshot is total hygiene. Naturally, growers will be able to use multiple teams. We always have 2 teams working during our harvest.

Volatile acidity at the end of fermentation will be very low. In our cellar, it never exceeds 16-18 mg/lit. And the oxidation process (the equivalent of aging for humans) will be much less advanced with respect to the old system using crates.

To make the process even better, we always keep a Styrofoam box filled with ice in each cart and we sprinkle the ice over the grapes as soon as they have been picked. This helps us to lower the temperature and to obtain a light cold-soak of the grapes on the spot. This works well for red grapes but it also even better for white grapes (which are very delicate).

Stefano Cinelli Colombini
grape grower, winemaker, and owner
Fattoria dei Barbi

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