It has long been a given that harvesting by hand, assuming that you have a suitably talented team of pickers, is better than by machine. Amongst ‘natural’ winemakers this remains an article of faith.
However, having seen a trial picking machine with optical sorting in action on Friday in Chinon and having ridden another advanced machine a couple of years ago in Anjou I have to wonder whether there really is still such an advantage to hand picking.
There is, of course, no doubt that you want to harvest with at least a couple of sweeps through the vines it has to be hand picked. This is particularly true of sweet wines. It was an aberration that picking machine were once allowed in the Coteaux du Layon. Thankfully that loop-hole has been closed for some time. It is also probably true if you want to make top quality dry Chenin Blanc, which has such degrees of ripeness within the same bunch.
But is it true of a more regularly ripening variety like Sauvignon Blanc? Last week in Sancerre a couple of domaines, who are fully committed to hand picking and carry out severe selection procedures in the vineyard and then in the winery, wondered how producers who machine pick are coping with the difficult conditions in 2013.
The answer I suggest lies in how sophisticated a machine they have. A ultra-modern machine, if it is really able to sort grapes properly rejecting rotten ones etc., offers considerable advantages in a vintage like 2013. Harvesting is much faster and you can start earlier and pick later, although too much rain will mean that your machine can’t get into the vineyard without sinking into the mud.
Furthermore you avoid the level of French bureaucracy involved in hiring pickers. Jean-Marie Bourgeois (Domaine Henri Bourgeois, Sancerre etc.) told us that it takes three and a half hours just to hire one picker – 90 minutes to fill in the forms and then a further two hours to process the application. I hope this is a slight exaggeration! Should the now hired picker prove to be totally useless they have to be given a week’s notice.
With a machine you should also avoid, or at least have a great albi, when the police arrive to check that all of your pickers are properly registered and aren’t illegal immigrants. We saw a convoy around six police cars around Les Loges (Pouilly-Fumé) last Thursday morning checking ‘vos papiers’!