Growing up, my mum worked weekends in cellar door and so I spent a lot of time with my grandparents who were viticulturists. My family came to NSW from South Australia in order to plant the former Saxonvale vineyard, at Broke. (This was eventually purchased and sold to the mining industry by Michael Hope, the concert entrepreneur of the Hunter Valley.) My grandparents had a hand in planting and/or managing several other estates in the Hunter Valley including Hollydene, Petersons, Briar Ridge, Terrace Vale. My family also established the first vineyards in Port Stephens.
Some of my best memories of the Hunter Valley were collected during my childhood wandering around vineyards – especially Summer time. We would set up a steel grape bin (a large bath shaped bin), fill it with bore water and we had a makeshift pool for the remainder of the day! A lot cleaner than the eel filled dams!
PHOTO: Me and My Pa. Palmers Lane, Pokolbin.
Vintage is the lively time of year when the grapes are harvested, usually between Summer and Autumn. Vintage is the sum of a year’s hard work, with all invested in good weather, exciting quality fruit and a bit of luck. Award winning wines begin with a skilful vigneron.
In order to determine the optimal time to harvest the fruit, the vigneron tests for the right balance of acidity to sugar. Grapes are measured for pH, Total Acidity and Baumé (the concentration of sugar in juice, “pronounced Bow-May”). Harvest too early and the wine will be acidic. The longer the fruit can stay on the vine, the more the natural sugars can develop. It all depends on the style of finished wine the winemaker would like. The right time to harvest might be selected by prevailing weather conditions. These can dramatically change the sugar and acid balance. For example, rain will plump berries, dilute flavour and cause other faults such as mould, mildew and split skins. Due to this, if wet weather is forecast, the Vigneron may choose to harvest sooner rather than later than risk losing their crop.
The fruit can be harvested either by hand or mechanical harvester. Hand picking usually occurs early in the morning, in order to avoid the intense heat of midday sun. Hand picking is fairly gentle on the vines, everyone gets a set of snips and a bucket and you go along the rows, one person either side of the row, until your bucket is full. Some of my favourite memories of growing up in the Hunter was marching down the rows with my bucket. A “bucket boy” (a prized position) quickly exchanges your full bucket for an empty one and tosses the fruit into the “grape bin”, which is being carted by a tractor. An even more prized position is to be driving that tractor slowly through the rows, in an air-conditioned cab. A small amount of Sulphur might be added to the bin of grapes in order to prevent spoilage. The grape bins are loaded onto a truck or towed directly to the winery to be weighed (usually to determine the amount the vigneron will be paid for the fruit). Although not always in money, as I recall my grandparents have been paid in wine and with a car during their time.
When hand harvesting, it can be difficult to get in close to the row and wrestle with the vine canes to get at the plump juicy fruit. In summer, there is also dense leaf foliage, which can be difficult to see the other side. If you’re not careful, you might snip the other person’s fingers! And every variety has different shaped bunches and berries. Pinot Noir would have to be my least favourite to hand-pick as it produces tight and small sporadic bunches! Pinot Noir is a pain in the arse!
In the Hunter Valley, the soils are clay based. After it rains, clay can be very muddy, and slippery. Gum Boot style. If it rains, a garbage bag with a head and arms cut out makes a great raincoat! Hand-picking reminds me of mud, blood, bugs, sweat and tears. These aromas mingle with those of sticky overripe fruit. All saturate the air, emphasised by with the heat of Summer and the sky fills with greedy, invasive vinegar flies. But, grape-picking in the Hunter Valley is a fun, social experience shared by those who were game enough to wage against the heat, and wrestle with the vines drenched in perspiration and juice. Sometimes, it’s simply just the determination to beat the weather to the perfect quality fruit.
At the end of vintage, we would hold a barbecue and closing ceremony. We would hand out funny certificates and novelty prizes to our pickers, such as the “Golden Bucket”. We wouldn’t see these people again until next Vintage.
Hand picking is expensive nowadays. In the early days we could grab a few people from town who wanted a bit of extra pocket money or some exercise and they could be paid a few dollars an hour. Then the government wanted to give everyone a fair go, and be paid properly according to an award. The award was likely 2 or 3 times that of what they were previously getting paid, but amazingly no-one wanted to go grape picking when they had to put their name down on a government form. For a while, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck turned up for work according to their forms, but it slowly declined.
The alternative is a mechanical harvester. It requires an initial outlay for the machine, ongoing maintenance and one person to drive it. Mechanical harvesting runs through the rows and shakes the berries off the vines. It is often done at night after a full day of ripening to optimise the sugars. It can be done quickly if it looks like rain. Not every vineyard has a mechanical harvester. It is expensive to own and many vineyards contract this out to those who do have one. They can also be rough on old vines. Those operating the harvester don’t get much sleep. During Vintage, they may be called out all over the valley in order to harvest the fruit. One vineyard after another.
Vintage is the only time of year the industry gets a chance to secure their next year’s income, so it is vital their crops are harvested at the right time. Basically in the wine industry if you lose your crop – you don’t get paid.
Once harvested by hand or mechanical harvester, the grapes are taken to the winery where they are crushed and de-stemmed. The resulting juice called “must” which may contain juice, skins and seeds is now ready for fermentation.
I believe during Vintage, there is more beer consumed than any other time… So I leave you with a parting question. I wonder how many beers it takes to produce a bottle of wine?