The grape harvest – then and now

September is the month that marks the end of summer, and the return to work or to school. It’s a month of new beginnings, of great expectations, and bit of trepidation about what the future holds. In Tuscany, September is also the month of the grape harvest, the event that immediately comes to mind when you think of winemaking. This magical meeting of humanity and nature has filled books, poems, paintings and films. In countryside traditions, the moment when the last grape is plucked from the vine is the moment the party starts: finally, the hard work has, quite literally, borne fruit. Even today, the grape harvest brings exactly the same atmosphere, and the local town or village celebrates with dinners in the winery, or even outside among the vines.

But how has the grape harvest changed, as wine has gone from a purely local source of sustenance to a commercial product on the global market?

In this regard, like in so many other areas of production, the last few decades have seen a compartmentalization of skills and the advent of careful planning that leaves nothing to chance.  The build-up to the harvest is a long, laborious sequence of meticulous analysis, which allows winemakers to assess the relevant criteria. The harvest is one link in a chain of processes: every step of the way is determined by the winemaker’s oenological choices, the style of wine that they want to obtain. The most crucial point in this process is the moment when the winemaker decides to pick the grapes, a decision that depends on the state of the grapes, the weather, and in no small part on the winemaker’s individual tastes. The point that the grapes are picked will have a decisive impact on their characteristics, and therefore on the wine’s characteristics too. Once upon time, this decision was left to the instinct of the winemaker and the intuition of the farmers, who just had their eyes and their tastebuds to rely on.

In times gone by, the grapes had to be picked by hand, whereas now there are a range of machines to help out. The manual-versus-mechanized choice depends largely on the type of wine being made, on the distribution of the vines, and on the cost of labor. Though it seems much less romantic, mechanized harvesting has reached such levels of precision that it can equal the results of manual picking, while saving a lot of time to boot. And let’s not forget that nowadays it’s much harder to find people available and willing to work the harvest: wineries have to seek the help of dedicated companies to provide them with the hands they need in September.

But the harvest isn’t just about what happens out in the fields. When the grapes arrive in the winery, they undergo a long preparation process before they can start fermenting. We all share that image of people pressing the grapes with their feet, but sadly, this is now a thing of the past. Oenological technology has evolved to the point that the winemaker has countless options at their disposal: destemming, crushing, pressing, pre-ferment maceration… As much as the grapes themselves, the choice of process varies considerably according to the wine that the winemaker is aiming for.

But some things have not changed with time. The grape harvest still means a hard, frenetic period: a period of adrenaline, passion, great expectations and bitter disappointments. The emotional rollercoaster of these few days gives meaning to the work of an entire year.

“Nothing makes me happier, 
than this smell that savors
of must and wine.”
["Ottobre", Vincenzo Cardarelli]